1. 'Computer: activate holo-deck, In the Night Garden sub-routine.'

    An interesting and problematic study from Northern Ireland about iPads in early-years settings hit the interweb today. Interesting because it makes some extraordinary claims about their efficacy that, if true and replicable, could revolutionise the way we teach in those settings; and problematic because  that ‘if’ has a lot of heavy lifting to do.

    The study ‘Mobile Devices in Early Learning’ was carried out for two years and involved 650 pupils in five Belfast primary schools and five nursery schools.

    ‘Schools which took part were in some of the most deprived areas of the city.
    They were each supplied with sets of iPads for nursery, primary one, primary two and primary three classes.’ (1)

    What did they find? Fans of chalk boards and cuneiform look away now:

    • The introduction of digital technology has had a positive impact on the development of children's literacy and numeracy skills
    • Contrary to initial expectations, principals and teachers report that the use of iPads in the classroom has enhanced children's communication skills
    • Children view learning using handheld devices as play and are more highly motivated, enthused and engaged
    • Boys appear to be more enthused when using digital technology, particularly when producing pieces of written work (2)

    Impressive stuff, and these findings represent prizes we all value: improved gateway skills, engagement, enjoyment, motivation. Game over for sceptics surely? Alas, one Boss-level obstacle remains. Is it true?

    The quotes above are taken from a news website, which only describes the authors' findings. But in order to understand if the research findings are robust, and that they flow from the iPad intervention, we need to be able to access methodology, study design, attainment measures and so on. We need to hear a critical voice to contract with the claims. Otherwise we could just say anything. 

    Thrilling sub-heading supported by weak evidence in paragraph 14

    What’s wrong with reporting like this? In my opinion, it's unhelpful. In fact I think taken as a whole it makes the business of knowing how to educate children harder. Because if we want to make sure that what we do with children in classrooms is useful rather than frivolous, it’s important that claims of efficacy are matched by evidence, and extraordinary claims matched by extraordinary evidence. This project set the Belfast Regeneration Project back £300K, with change back for a Solero- or a teacher’s salary for a decade if you prefer. School budgets are finite systems and getting more finite by the year.

    'Sir! This intervention appears to based on weak findings.'
    When we report unconfirmed results like this without challenge, the intellectual landscape of education discourse is changed subtly. This news report will be cited somewhere, by someone who wants to bring a cache of iPads into a school, and someone somewhere will say ‘OK’. That’s great if they have the effect they claim, but what if they don’t? At best a waste of money and time. In fact, that’s also the ‘at worst’ scenario, because children- especially children in deprived areas, don’t have second chances, or time for expensive substitutes for teaching time. When we report research without question, it enter the collective psyche as factual: ‘iPads make kids smarter and happier.’ But what if they don’t? And I don’t have skin in this game. I love iPads. But I also loved Tom Hardy’s performance in Taboo, and I’m not using that in any lessons soon because there is no obvious reason for me to do so.

    Show me the money

    Ok, so go beyond the slightly breathless news report. Where is the research itself?

    The article doesn’t link to anything we can look at, so a quick search reveals that this study is:

    ‘Gray, C., Dunn, J., Moffett, P., & Mitchell, D. (2017). Mobile devices in early learning. Developing the use of portable devices to support young children's learning. Stranmillis University College: A College of The Queen's University of Belfast, 24.05.2017’

    To the website, Robin. Over at Stranmillis University College, we find a link to a press release, where one of the report’s author’s makes these claims:

    “The study’s findings showed that, in the five participating schools, all of which were located in catchment areas of high social deprivation and academic under-achievement, the introduction of digital technology has had a positive impact on the development of pupil literacy and numeracy skills. And, contrary to initial expectations, principals and teachers also reported that their use had enhanced children’s communication skills, acting as a stimulus for peer to peer and pupil to teacher discussion.” (3)

    There’s a link at the bottom of this breathless review, but it doesn’t work- happily the study is elsewhere on the website (4).

    Surely here at last we'll find evidence that robustly stands the claim up? Well, in my opinion, it's a bit disappointing. Why?

    1. Completely subjective self-reporting: If you were hoping to find some evidence that children's literacy or numeracy had been demonstrably improved in an objective way, you will go home with empty pockets. All the evidence collected in this areas was in the form of semi-structured interviews with teachers, school principals, student focus groups and parental questionnaires. So the teachers (small focus groups from each of the 5 schools and pre-schools) said things like 'I think they've improved their literacy.' How do we know this? How can we separate any gains from normal progress, or progress attributable to other interventions or processes? 

    2.  Questionnaire response rate: 27% (after a second push- the first response was 8%), which seems to my mind to be a poor response. We have no way of knowing how representative this is (although I'll suggest 'not very')

    3. Possible design biases: schools were selected to participate in this project based on their commitment to the project, their pre-existing use of ICT and iPads in the school, and their commitment to use iPads in the future, as well as a troubling commitment to 'The benefits of developing literacy and numeracy skills to be gained from the use of iPads.' So, to summarise: schools that were enthusiastic about iPads, already used them and believed they had big educational benefits, participated. 'Person who likes x, thinks x is good' isn't so much a research finding as a disappointing maxim in a fortune cookie. 

    4. Variable usage: schools used them at different times, with different apps, in different ways, with different children. In some schools they were used more than others. It seems very hard to discern if like is being compared with like. 

    5. Funding. This whole program came about because the Belfast Educational & Library Board was awarded a grant from the Belfast Regeneration Office to 'develop an ICT program.' Was there sufficient critical examination of the need to do so in the first place? Every study needs to suspend disbelief in its own utility, and question its own existence.

    6. No control group. What is this intervention better than?

    Duvet days: no longer a get-out from teaching.
    This study' findings may well be found to be correct, and I’m sure that the authors and everyone involved has the best of intentions and conducted themselves with scruples and integrity. That’s not in question. But questions are all we have at this stage. All we are holding in our hands is a fog of grand claims and optimism. Do iPads turn frowns upside down? Do they turn light bulbs on above confused heads? Are they just a novelty or a distraction? We can’t tell, not from this. A day of terrific press is great for the University, but doesn’t help the debate.

    Never mind the quality, feel the tech

    I’ve looked at a lot of research that often gets used to support positive claims for the utility of tech in the classroom, and often they don’t stand up in court. Some of the most duplicitous research I have read in this area uses proxies of success that are entirely subjective or impossible to substantiate. ‘tech has the potential to do x’ is the same as ‘tech has not done x yet.’ And ‘boys appear to be more enthused when using digital technology’ could be uncharitably responded to with a ‘so what?’ and a ‘oh really?’ and a 'did it take a £500 iPad to do that?'

    And that’s important, because schools are poor and kids don’t often get second chances when they come from deprived areas. Universal, free education is one of humanity’s greatest inventions. Wasting that is a sin, and a theft from people with nearly nothing. Who would rob a child, from a family with nothing but debt?  


    Other people's children

    Public money needs to be spent as carefully as if it were our own. Other people’s children need to be taught as carefully as if they belonged to us. No child should endure the loss of their right to an education, no matter how digitally it is dressed. If iPads and their ilk can bring benefit to the table, then let them demonstrate it in public. Let everyone see how well they work, and if they do, the truth will be unmistakeable. But when claims are made without data that substantiates it appropriately then we have a right to ask if our money is being spent wisely. This matters. Ominously, the report suggest that:
    'These findings should inform the future rollout of similar initiatives and will be of interest to practitioners, policy-makers and parents.'
    Ireland, I love you. My family migrated from Ireland. I wish you and your beautiful island nothing but fortune and love. For the good of your children, and the wealth of your nation, and the prospect of better things to come, I suggest that you use these findings wisely. Keep your hands away from the cheque books for now and wait until better data supports swapping out precious resources for digital magic beans.

    I'll end with a lovely quote from Piaget, which starts the report:

    'The principal goal of education is to create men and women who are capable of doing few things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done—men and women who are creative, inventive, and discoverers, who have minds which can be critical, can verify, and not accept everything they are offered (Piaget,1973).'

    Be critical? Verify? Not accept everything we're offered? I couldn't agree more. 



    (2) Ibid

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  2. 'Look darling- straight A*s again.'

    In Florence Foster Jenkins (2016), Meryl Streep plays the eponymous New York heiress socialite who was determined to succeed in her chosen profession of opera singer despite the cruel blow fate had dealt her by making her both tone deaf and a terrible singer. Hugh Grant plays Hugh Grant playing her husband, who simultaneously supports her ambitions while deflecting any of the obvious and natural checks and balances that the world typically offers hubris, such as criticism or anything resembling sincere feedback.

    It’s an odd film in some ways, but surprisingly engaging. Despite Streep’s world-class ability to inhabit, humanise and broadcast the lightest of frailties (the irony, of course being that her superhuman ability is here deployed to convey the talent vacuum that is Jenkins) the moral narrative of the film appears to ask us to accompany its ambitions in an eccentric direction. We are asked to sympathise with her great fall from self delusion when she finally realises her ambitions of releasing a record and performing at Carnegie hall, with the concomitant mockery public exposure entails. No one could enjoy to see someone flayed alive by critics, but it hard to conclude that she deserves our sympathy for this acrobat's tumble into just desserts.

    She's so lucky

    Successful men and women frequently claim to be self made. If they are sensible, cautious and humble they will acknowledge the debt they owe to the people and circumstances that allowed them to blossom. And if they are wiser still, they will acknowledge the debt they owe to sheer, dumb luck. That isn’t to deny their often Olympian efforts from within their own reservoirs, but to account for the reality that success and failure exist within an often unforgiving ecosystem. How many Mozarts died of smallpox? How many Hawkings or Bransons or Bolts never got to a blackboard, a board room or running track? And how many Paris Hiltons or Kardashians watch us from the opera boxes of privilege because their talent was the good fortune to be born in House Lannister?

    Jenkins survived and thrived in an arena that would normally have devoured and digested her because she possessed that adamantine shield that saves us from all but the most inevitable of life’s indignities: pots and pots of lovely money. Unearned status and a room full of coin are the ultimate edge in the great game of life. When Jenkins finally, finally saw her very first bad review, she keeled over and fainted, and the film’s plot beats tapped out a tragic tattoo on her behalf. Meanwhile I’m thinking, ‘Boy, I read two worse reviews for my last book before breakfast. Where’s my biopic?’ If you’re going to ask us to care for a character’s sine wave of fortune, then it’s probably best if what’s at stake matters to those of us looking up at Heaven.

    If you teach, you’ll find Jenkin’s professional woes unremarkable or even intelligible. When you teach children who come from backgrounds where there are no golden tickets, no second chances, no parachutes or safety nets, where there are no trust funds to cushion you from a cruel world, then perhaps you’ll sympathise kore with the queue of unsuccessful pianists whom Jenkins dismisses before they even had a chance to audition, because the one she chooses was fortunate enough to play a melody that flattered her sentimental memories. Their hard work, their presumed virtues meant nothing to the whim of a woman who could afford to pay New York’s finest vocal coaches to bootlick and lie to her.

    Everyone has potential- so what?

    The children we teach mustn’t be lied to. When they stumble it is our duty to tell them where they tripped, not to congratulate them on how well they fell. When what they do is not wonderful, they need to know how unwonderful it was, and crucially, what the next step to wonder might be. Because they will be competing in a world where others will begin the race with a head start, one of the worst things we can do is to accept work below a pupil’s capabilities without comment. Effort is important, and its perpetual invocation is to be encouraged and imbedded as the fuel that makes everything else possible. But not just effort: achievement. We speak glibly about wanting to help pupils to achieve their potential, but potential is a weasel term unless you grasp exactly what it means. Most of us have extraordinary potential in so many fields. Almost any one of your children could climb Everest or graduate from Cambridge if they wanted to sufficiently, and are shown the way. But potential is nothing but a ghost. Being, doing, these are the things to which we rightly aspire.

    I was once at a school where the head teacher wanted- rightly- to inspire and motivate pupils to believe in their dreams, by showing them short musical clips from Youtube that repeated simple aspirational messages about struggling and striving while music rose and surged in the background. If you have ever seen 500 bored faces watching yet another of these seemingly endless videos, you’ll understand why ambition, effort and inspiration can’t be taught as easily as a parcel is delivered. One of my omni-late sixth formers summed it up. ‘Sir, missing assembly isn’t being late. They'll just be showing another inspirational video.’

    Money beats paper, scissors, rock

    Florence Foster Jenkins is a perfect example of ‘when you win they call you a winner.’ Never ask someone with a trust fund how to get rich. The children we teach will, for the most part, be unencumbered by the golden armour of invincible privilege. When they leave school they will not be given jobs because they believed in their dreams, followed their heart songs or stayed true to who they are. This is not a Disney film, unless Disney have branched out into dystopian real-life dramas where evil frequently conquers good. Life is only a box of chocolates if you imagine that the strawberry creams have been replaced by gelignite and may blow your teeth out, and some of the caramels contain arsenic.

    In the great Scissors, Rock, Paper game of life, the best we can do is teach them how to make each hand and what to do when fortune inevitably marks their card. They will succeed because we have believed in them enough to raise them as they need to be raised, not how they would like to be. Because we taught them that luck is beyond their control, but effort, applied and focussed like a laser on the unglamorous minutia of education was the most magical thing that was still within their power to obtain, and ours to nurture.

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  3. Judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree and it’ll spend a lifetime thinking it’s stupid
    Albert Einstein

    You’ll see this quote everywhere. Its memorable and tidy and superficially convincing. It’s often accompanied by the cartoon at the top of this post (in which the goldfish is in a bowl on top of a tree stump, which makes me think damn that goldfish is a really good climber already).

    Except Einstein never said it. It’s a perfect example of how the Internet has resurrected the principle that a lie can get half way around the world before the truth can get its boots on. A glib, seductive claim untroubled by veracity or evidence. This is how the video ‘I just sued the school’ starts. It’s also very much how it continues.

    Fans of 19th century educational clichés dressed as slick, radical innovation are in for a treat, in a short film/ advert/ performance by hip-hop inspirational speaker Prince Ea called 'I just sued the School System' released in 2016. (It’s already had over 5 million views. I can only imagine how many staff meetings and assemblies have already pored over it.) 

    To be honest fans of these ideas are rarely not in for a treat, as such proclamations are common as pigeons and as old as coal. Did you see Ken Robinson’s magnum opus in this area? I’d be more surprised if you didn’t. His TED talk 'Do schools kill creativity?' (12 million views) is currently the industry standard in this territory. And a few years ago a keen young rapper called Boyinaband took up the torch with his viral ‘Don’t stay in school.’ (14 million views) As you might gather, they think schools are rubbish. 



    I’ve made hay out of both of these before. See here for my review of Ken Robinson's oeuvre and here for my thoughts on Boyinaband. They position themselves as radicals, innovators and disruptors of ancient paradigms. But their arguments are straight out of the 19th century and the first wave of romanticism and progressive education. Their arguments are thin at best, and rely more on an appeal to the emotions than fact. But the problem with ghosts and wraiths is that you can’t knock them out with the biggest haymaker. It's hard to put gas in a box. 'What is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence', as the clever Hitchens brother once said. But what if they won’t be dismissed? What if people still believe? What if they prefer the ghost?

    The People vs The School System


    Let’s look at the video. For a start you notice the production values. This is well designed, scored, cast and performed. Prince Ea is sincere, convincing and convinced. The rhetorical dimension is beautifully executed. Set in that Neverland trope, a mythical court of truth and goodness, he plays a young Atticus Finch/ Torquemada, holding the school system to account for its many crimes- here gamely represented by a sneering, old white man. Righteous vigour versus infirmity and privilege. Which is great because for a minute I thought he was going to play the obvious rhetorical tropes.

    Over 6 minutes we’re treated to a shopping list of every educational cliché: schools are no longer fit for purpose; schools haven’t changed in 150 years whereas cars and telephones are unrecognisable, and so on. Some of the charges laid are quite remarkable. Apparently schools:

    • Kill creativity
    • Kill individuality
    • Are intellectually abusive
    • Turn millions of people into robots
    • Are guilty of malpractice


    These kinds of allegations stagger me with their casual vilification of educators. Millions of people work in the systems he describes, grafting and straining and giving every damn they can, only to be told by an incredibly successful product of that system (Magna Cum Laude in anthropology, University of Missouri) that they are 'abusive'. It pretends to make a distinction between attacking ‘the system’ and the people who inhabit it. ‘They’re not the problem. They work in a system.’ This is the rhetorical equivalent of someone in a pub saying ‘No offence, but’ before telling you your kids are ugly. ‘The system’ isn’t just some administrative miasma or dystopian fantasy bureaucracy like HYDRA or SMERSH. It’s composed of the people within it, many of whom may disagree with this policy or that, but who for the most part give far more of a damn about making it work than…well, someone who has time to make inspirational videos for a living.
      
    No corpse of an idea is too ripe to have lipstick applied and paraded: ‘I did a background check. You were made to train people for factories. Straight rows. Short breaks.’ No, no it wasn’t. For a thorough deboning of this myth, see here. This misunderstanding of how and why public schooling was created is indicative of the quality of analysis throughout. And besides, does anyone really think that contemporary schooling is designed to create factory workers? How many factories have counsellors, art and drama, Glee and chess clubs? You didn’t do a background check. You just read Ken Robinson with a highlighter pen.

    You might as well claim that redcurrants and White Christmases were the same thing because they were both colours. Could it be that rows are an efficient way to seat students to see what the teacher is doing? Could it be periods of work followed by brief spells of rest are a pretty sound way to get things done? No, obviously they are instruments of tyranny. ‘We all have a past,’ he tells us. ‘I myself am no Gandhi.’ You got that right. Gandhi was informed.

    Fashionable in the 80s

    The video is peppered with unintentional hilarious goofball moments. ‘Scientists tell us no two brains are the same.’ Cue a scientist in the stand holding a plastic brain. Conceivably this alludes to the theories of multiple intelligences or perhaps even learning styles like VAK which have been so comprehensively blown up by contemporary neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Such ideas are common tropes in pseudo science, and used to justify multiple sins in classrooms. Of course our brains aren’t identical- otherwise we’d be the same person- but they work pretty much the same way, aberrations notwithstanding.

    The process by which we all learn is remarkably similar in function and execution. The drive for entirely personalised learning, like so much of this video, was hip about ten years ago, but has been challenged repeatedly since. Teachers are actually pretty good at spotting where students are with their baseline knowledge, and working out what to teach them next. Neuroscience doesn’t teach us that- classroom experience and solid subject familiarity does. I don’t fret about what kind of brain little Jessica or Jasmine has; I ask myself what do they need to learn next. While the narrator is fretting about cookie-cutter education and ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ (does it ever?) paradigms, teachers are getting on with the job. He seems to think we stand there and lecture for an hours to our students and the devil take the hindmost. Which ignores all of the questioning, feedback, and discussions that take place. 

    To the narrator, it’s 'educational malpractice' for one teacher to stand in front of twenty children . Meanwhile I’m thinking ‘Man, that's a pretty good ratio, I wish all my classes were that small.’ He calls it ‘horrific.’ He says it’s ‘the worst criminal offence ever.’ Perspective, reason, evidence, propriety all self-immolate in a gas station conflagration of hyperbole. I can only guess how he describes murder.

    Teachers are underpaid, he claims, apparently walking back the charge that we are worse than carpet bombers, which is nice of him. ‘Doctors can perform heart surgery,’ he says. ‘But teachers can reach the heart of children.’ And I’m reminded of Owen Wilson’s con artist in Wedding Crashers. ‘You know how they say we only use 10 percent of our brains? I think we only use 10 percent of our hearts.’ It makes a decent inspirational coaster, but as an argument it lacks something.

    And ‘Curriuclums are created by policy makers who have never taught a day in their lives.’ For a man who sells inspirational mugs, this is pretty brave stuff. And ignores the obvious mechanisms that curriculums usually go through before they ever see a classroom, which involves substantial input or design by teachers. But, y'know, facts

    Bullsh*t Bingo

    If you had ‘Uses Finland as an argument’ in the sweep stake then prepare to collect your winnings, as he does indeed, go there like the SAS. ‘They have shorter school days, good wages, and focus on collaboration instead of competition.’ They also have a population of five and a half million and a winter 100 days long. Plus they’ve started to fall down the international league tables despite still having all of these things. And many have argued that their prior dominance was founded on existing cultural factors.  Education tourism is a sin, or as Prince Ea might put it ‘the greatest tragedy known to humanity ever including the great flood.’ Probably. And besides, Singapore does pretty well too, despite it representing a system closer to the human power cells of the Matrix than the antediluvian Eden of Scandinavia. Oddly, he does mention Singapore but doesn’t develop this apparently argument-shredding counter example.

    By now he’s going full pelt and the clichés are like buckshot. He mentions Montessori schools as a shining example of what he sees as a solution, despite the fact that nobody can seem to get that child centred model to work on anything apart from very tiny children- probably for the very good reason that child-led enquiry is perfectly natural and useful in the infant stage, but pretty terrible as a way to accrue second-order propositional knowledge, ie academic subjects. He name checks
    the Khan Academy, because it’s apparently against the law to be a groovy thought leader in education without advocating flipped learning, despite the enormous chasm of any substantial evidence that teaching yourself academic subjects is of any use to any but the most motivated, mature, and crucially, already able. Try getting that to scale up to ‘most kids in general.’

    Summing up

    The framing device here is a courtroom, so allow me the same conceit: J’accuse. His solutions aren’t real world solutions. The children he talks about aren’t your average kid from your average home. His solutions suit the wealthy, the middle class, the children of supportive and culturally literate homes. His crepuscular arguments are delivered with passion and intensity, so allow me an equivalent intensity: the solutions he proposes are divisive, unrealistic, costly, and promote social immobility, illiteracy and the disenfranchisement of children- particularly those from backgrounds of social and economic disadvantage. They signal boost the already privileged at the expense of those children who happened to be born in the wrong neighbourhood, the wrong family, the wrong ethnicity, the wrong tax bracket. They are well-meant, no doubt. But so are people who promote the boycott of vaccines.

    This kind of muddled, goofy optimism, these charming and harmful nod-along singsong aphorisms should be resisted at every opportunity. Education is far from perfect. In fact, it’s in a bit of a pickle. But that doesn’t mean chaos is preferable to the hot mess we’re in. There are solutions. But they won’t be found in this Hallmark Card, Silicon Valley, cartoon fantasy where schools are villains and every child is a butterfly. We cannot Eat, Pray, Love our way out of our problems. It’s going to take a lot more than reheated leftovers from a brainstorming session out of an advertising agency.

    Why do you hate children?

    You want children to be creative? Great; so do I, and just about every other teaching professional. The way to make that happen is to stop pretending that creativity is some kind of magic, mysterious thing that happens when you put children on bean bags and get them to design a poster, and realise that humans are naturally creative and the way to encourage the expression of that faculty in a developed and mature way is by teaching them. Teaching them bags of beautiful, fascinating domain specific knowledge and skills, the scales and arpeggios of creation. Mozart and Shakespeare mastered their classics and chords long before they wrote operas and sonnets. 

    Ladies and gentlemen of the jury I put it to you that education is unwell, but it needs medicine, not homoeopathy and voodoo magic. But as Abraham Lincoln once said, ’Don’t believe everything you see on Youtube.’

    Case dismissed. 




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  4. I was the worst kind of tourist today: an ignorant one. I was in Stockholm to host researchED Haninge and chew bubblegum, and I was all out of bubblegum. But unlike our ancestors, for whom international travel was an arduous pilgrimage, we skip across borders like children. Even so, normally on any visit you'd guide-book up; I knew zip. So when I found a few hours free on Sunday to poke around the city before I flew back I found myself a stranger in a strange land, a wise fool.

    It was frustrating to pad around the beautiful Old Town, ignorant of every brick and cobble, every institute and palace and promenade. I bumped into the Royal Palace like I'd fallen from the Moon, and watched soldiers march up and down, uncomprehendingly. Of course, I wasn't a tabula rasa; I could piece together some of what I was saw: I knew a little Swedish history, a bit of ABBA, how to build a Billy bookcase, all the Larsson novels, Pippi Longstockings.  So I wandered around,  uncomprehending, dislocated from my circumstances by ignorance. Knowledge was the lack; misunderstanding the effect. No amount of puzzling it out by myself would make up for the it. The facts were not buried in me, waiting to be winkled out. I could no more have discovered what was what than I could have played written a book with no letters.

    I could have found out; I could have quizzed everyone I met. I could have asked the shop assistants, and waitresses, and policeman what I was looking at, and built up a picture that way. But a) I would have no idea if I had discovered the most important things to know and b) I would miss my plane and possibly starve to death. But half an hour with a guide book would have opened it up like a treasure chest. I saw a billboard advert that said, 'For the travellers who go by instinct, not by must-dos.' I understand that. There is a special pleasure in wandering, driven by chance and circumstance and luck. There are Stockholms and Parises and Tenochtitlans wild and hidden and mysterious, waiting to be found. But imagine if you did that and missed the Louvre? Imagine if you went to Venice and wandered past St Mark's Square?

    I know nothing

    Wild learning, self guided, unpredictable and new, has many things to recommend it; surprise, novelty, personal investment. Everyone who likes to be a traveller rather than a tourist would prefer to say they had discovered their Tuscany, their Tromso. But doing do requires that you already have a hundred pegs on which to hang the new, unprocessed data: I know a little Polish history, so I can reverse engineer some of Swedish history from their wars; I live in a constitutional monarchy/ parliamentary democracy so I know that I'm not in immediate danger of being press-ganged into the King's militia without a warrant from John Company. I've seen enough charming ancient labyrinths to know a tourist duck shoot when I see one. Knowledge begets knowledge. To those that hath, shall be given. I missed almost everything, and how different it could have been. Stockholm, I apologise for walking through you as witless as Pinocchio was inside a whale's bowels.

    Visit Auschwitz to see a contrast. Oświęcim locals will remind you: it's not a Polish concentration camp; it was a German camp, hence the retention of the Germanic form. And it's not a camp; it's a museum, a memorial. Visitors are required to take the tour, and lean on headphones to unpack the horror. It's easy to understand why. Without background, Auschwitz is rubble and grass and cattle sheds and mean, meaningless brick one-storey terraces. With explanation, it burns and hums with history and Hell and horror: the spot where Maximilian Kobe was martyred and murdered; walking though the gas chambers and trembling; shaking with sorrow at the bogs where the ashes of thousands were buried. What is a room full of spectacles but an odd jumble of garbage until someone points out their savage provenance? Rags, hair, suitcases are detritus until each one has a line drawn to a lost soul. 


    You could find out for yourself. You could. You could- and should- talk to people there, ponder a little, work out why an oven needed to be so inordinately large in a prison camp. Or you could be told by an expert, and then do that anyway, broadening your understanding, imbedding that understanding with personal experience, and fixing it in your comprehension with depth and gravity. 

    Why not just tell them?

    Discovery is a fine thing; a necessary thing. some say it is the natural power of the human mind. It is the intuitive, animal legacy of our apprehension and it is a wonderful thing. But it was designed to construct knowledge of a world at a very human level: how not to tumble over, when to shield one's eyes from the sun, how far an apple will travel if thrown just so. But Newton spoke truly when he said he saw further because he stood on the shoulders of giants; propositional claims ('Stockholm is in Sweden'; 'Carl XVI Gustaf is King') can be imparted in the time it takes to say it. In this way we not only stand on giants' shoulders, we rapidly form a pyramid of giants and humans, and see for miles. 

    When we teach students, there may well be times we want them to figure out the world for themselves. But when we do, we should ask, 'Why not....just tell them? What is to be gained by the game?' If we can't answer this, then we have a duty to inform, clearly, and with as much an impression as we can make. 

    The unexamined life is famously not worth living. But the informed life is worth much more. 
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  5. Train spotters have their niche, I have mine. Over the last ten years I must have been in over 150 schools to look at their behaviour systems. What started off as a few consults became a habit. I get asked to work with schools that want to tighten up, reboot or buff their policies and practices. Sometimes it’s a check-up, and sometimes it’s an autopsy. It’s always a privilege.

    I’ve found that some strategies are highly contextual, and some graft nicely on to a wide set of circumstances. It’s not often you can recommend a strategy blind to a school, because as Dylan Wiliam says ‘Everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere.’ But if we’re smart we can try to establish as many best-bets, highly-probables and ‘this works a lot’ as we can. Like an aspirin, most people feel better, and a few feel worse. But we still prescribe aspirin.

    And one of the most successful strategies I’ve seen used by schools, and especially by schools that have very effective school behaviour systems, is centralised detentions (CD). Instead of setting and attending a detention individually, a class room teacher sets the detention which is then carried out by someone else, who may have several pupils in theor care from several sources.

    Often the monitor is a senior member of the team. What they do there varies, but at the moment I want to talk about centralising detentions rather than justifying them.

    The benefits:

    • Workload: The teacher does not have to attend part- or all- of the detention. This frees up a potentially huge amount of time, one of the most precious commodities in the teacher’s utility belt. I know some teachers whose every spare moment is guaranteed to be blocked out by someone in detention, all week. And just one detainee has the same effect on your schedule.  
    • Data efficiency: Because the detentions are centralised, there is better tracking of who does and does not attend. All data flows through one point, rather than being monitored by a web of people who may not share their data. 
    • Flagging up concerns: Multiple, repeat offenders, or ‘doubles/ triples’ (students set more than one detention at a time) can be identified immediately, and their issues addressed. 
    • Better skilled practitioners: easier to train staff appropriately rather than leaving it to dozens of teachers with variable skill bases.
    • Consistency of standard: School cultural norms can be more consistently conveyed at centralised detentions. Different teachers (even in the same school), have different standards of what pupils may or may not do in detention, from silent vigils, to playing on their phones. Pupils need to know what to expect.


    The drawbacks:

    • Dislocation of response: It depersonalises the consequences. The pupils are often dealt with by someone who has no close connection to the relationship in the classroom. However, this can sometimes be a benefit too.
    • Exploitation: Teachers may take advantage of the opportunity. Running your own sanctions can be exhausting. If all they have to do is tap a button on SIMS, then a lot of teachers will be tempted to get trigger happy. Sad to say I’ve seen this. Rather than attempt to resolve matters in the classroom, the weaker teacher will simply hammer away at the detention bazooka. Because when someone gives you a magic hammer all your problems start to look like nails. The solution to this is for leadership to monitor the data, and support- not sanction- teachers who have patterns of high usage. After all they may simply be dealing with a more challenging intake, or carrying out the school policy to the letter. They might need support, or they might deserve a damn medal.


    CD work best when

    • Multiple teachers set frequent detentions
    • In large schools or faculties
    • Teachers already have substantial workload issues (so: most places)
    • Problems occur due to inconsistency of teacher detention practices
    • Pupils frequently dodge detentions


    CD works less well when

    • Schools are smaller
    • Schools already have personal detentions as a system and teachers and students feel that it works better that way
    • Detentions are very rare


    So this is still no panacea; centralised detentions can be done badly, or worse can be done so badly they make things worse. But so what? That could be said of any system, from tax credits to dress down Friday. They can give staff back whole weeks of their years; they can free up substantial chunks of time on an almost dally basis. They can make the whole school detention system rock solid and air tight, which improves the whole efficacy of detentions as a system. Remember, the severity is far less important than the certainty.


    I would encourage any school to try this. Try it for two terms.  Review it after the first term to see where the snags are. Improve it for the second. Then bin or beatify as you see fit. I bet some schools will never look back.
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  6. 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

    IN OTHER NEWS: TELLIES YOU CAN SEE FROM THE MOON
    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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  7. '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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  8. 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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  9. 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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  10. '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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