Last March the DfE published my behaviour report ‘Creating a Culture’ in which I outlined some of the strategies most commonly found to be effective by schools that had managed to achieve fantastic behaviour despite difficult circumstances.
There were many common themes (because all students are humans, with human capacities, appetites and reactions) many different ways these themes were achieved (because context matters, and few things in human behaviour are universal). Detail matters.
One of the most commonly encountered strategies was the use of well-described routines, defined, embedded and maintained by an alert and consistent staff, and self-sustained by the community of students. For routines to work, they have to be consistent. There need to be understood exceptions, and exceptions need to be exceptional, rational and coherent with the culture. Laws are laws but without room for wise interpretation they become prisons rather than climbing frames.
Elitist or Inclusive?
One of the most common worries people have is the fear that such environments aren’t inclusive. That they, by their nature, exclude pupils with special needs, vulnerable pupils, and those facing intrinsic and extrinsic challenges, from trauma to dyslexia.
It’s a reasonable fear- after all, if a behaviour system aims to high expectations for all, what happens when some can't reach as far? And if a system’s only response to failure to reach those expectations is a process of escalating sanctions leading to a terminal evacuation, don’t such practises inherently lean towards expulsions and the marginalisation of already marginalised children?
Thankfully, these fears are only realised if these systems are run badly, with no care for detail, context or nuance. I was inspired by a comment made by John d’Abbro, head of New Rush Hall, a special school in Ilford, Essex:
Good behaviour management is the same in special schools as it is in mainstream- high expectations, routines, consequences, and showing the kids you give a damn.
And that’s what we found. The fundamentals of a well-run school:
A) Apply as much to alternative provision as mainstream schools/ students
B) Benefit all students e.g. through structure, routine
These fundamentals include:
- Embedding social norms, such as values of compassion or politeness
- High expectations that demonstrate the faith the school has in every pupil
- Routines that scaffold useful behaviour aimed at cooperation and mutual collective and individual benefit
- Unconditional professional regard for the well being and potential of every student
Structure is perhaps one of the most important aspects that a school can most obviously attend to. Because structure benefits all pupils, those with special needs and those without. But structure also disproportionately benefits the most vulnerable and in need: looked after pupils, in the care of the state; students with learning difficulties, autism; the least able; the socially dislocated; refugees.
The School as an Ark
Well-structured schools are also an Ark: a safe haven from otherwise turbulent and difficult circumstances. This is because:
•School can provide structure that may be absent in other aspects of their lives
•It may be the safest, most stable place they know
•Well-structured schools minimise bullying
•Signs of mental health issues can be noticed and tackled more easily in quiet, calm spaces
•Calm environments minimise stress, triggers for poor behaviour or trauma
Plan for behaviour- get in front of it
Charlie Taylor, a former head teacher of The Willows, a school for children with complex behavioural, emotional and social difficulties, said:
‘Too often school leaders and teachers don’t think about behaviour when it’s good. They only think about it when it’s bad, which is counter-intuitive. When they have not thought about it and planned effectively they are disabled by the behaviour of just a few students. Planning for each individual child is vital especially when setting behaviour goals. Teachers just react to the child’s misbehaviour rather than having planned strategies in place.’
He was talking about special provision, but the lesson applies equally to all pupils. It is vital that a school gets in front of behavioural difficulties before they manifest. Nowhere is this more urgently needed than with children with special needs. By the time we react to their reactions, it is often too late to help; we need to help them before they need it, before their needs exceed their capacity to self-regulate.
But do high expectations exclude rather than include?
Quite the opposite. Because special circumstances deserve special provision, and the wise school care for such contexts. We think nothing of ramp access for students needing wheelchairs; no one is witless enough to query why a paraplegic isn’t running the 400m in PE. Such remedies and accommodations are easily understood. Pupils and sometimes schools struggle with the same reasoning when impairment, disabilities or difficulties are invisible to the eye.
High expectations are crucial to the teacher/ pupil relationship. This is because:
- High expectations indicate a regard for the dignity of the student, and shows faith in their potential to improve
- However, many pupils with SEN suffer from disadvantages the make meeting absolute social norms more difficult than it would be otherwise.
- Reasonable accommodations must be made for such pupils. This is not to be seen as a failure of law and structure, but the realisation of it as a lived, organic aspect of a moral culture. Special circumstances demand special responses.
- At the same time as these accommodations are made, we scaffold ways to improve; we demonstrate them clearly; we monitor the progress exactly as we would monitor academic progress.
Responding to challenging behaviour.
At the same time we need to acknowledge that routines and accommodations are not enough; that we need a mature system of responses ready when behaviour falls below our expectation. All schools need a behaviour feedback mechanism, often called a consequence system. But that is what it is- feedback for pupil behaviour. That feedback can be:
- Designed to encourage towards behaviour we would like to see repeated. This is usually interpreted as rewards. The most valuable and available reward is usually sincere, targeted, proportionate praise. Other feedback in this category would be encouragement, verbal or otherwise. Demonstrating a pupil’s efforts as an exemplar to their peer group is often a valuable experience for a pupil.
- Designed to discourage. Deterrence is an essential part of managing behaviour. The knowledge that sanctions (for example) are possible is a subtle yet powerful framing device to many people’s actions. Despite our wishes for it to be otherwise, no community can sustain itself for long without a sense that a) boundaries exist and b) consequences are attached to breaking them. Certainty of sanction is far more important than severity. Diminishing gains are achieved by ignoring either side of this maxim. Inconsistency is corrosive to the trust between teacher and student. Learning to trust and rely on a teacher’s integrity and dependability is key to developing that relationship. Exceptions must be allowed, but exceptions must be rational, explicable, and exceptional.
- Supportive. Pupils might need help to overcome literacy difficulties, lack of baseline knowledge, conceptual issues with topics, or broader counselling or formal/ informal support with problems at home or their community. These can range from child protection issues, to medical needs, to issues connected to poverty or neglect, deliberate or otherwise. But support need not be aimed at remedying some lack; it can also be nurturing a talent, designing a program for gifted students; developing an interest or study area parallel to the curriculum.
- Neutral: sometimes, doing nothing is what is needed most. A pupil on task, working hard, focused on their endeavours, needs to be left to pursue their task to its conclusion. Not acting is itself an action.
Of course, feedback on pupil behaviour can have several simultaneous aims: a pupil can be reprimanded and given remedial lessons on reading comprehension; rewarded and left alone. Learning where and how to blend these responses, in what proportions and intensity or duration, and in what contexts, is a crucial part of developing a professional teacher’s judgement.
Zero tolerance, or ‘no excuses’ has little place in an effective behaviour culture, because no law is exempt from exception. However we can say that some behaviours are particularly intolerable and should never be permitted: racism, cruelty or abuse, for example. But many rules and routines will have genuine mitigating circumstances, however infrequent. To pre-empt wisdom with blunt certainty is to ignore the complexity of the human sphere. That said, extremely low levels of tolerance should be characteristic of good behaviour systems, and high expectations. Students of all abilities should be encouraged to, where possible, take responsibility for their actions, and learn strategies that help them to flourish as people and scholars. Accommodations must be made for students who are genuinely unable to meet behavioural expectations, for example due to a diagnosed learning difficulty.
Simultaneously, it must not be assumed that, in the absence of such a diagnosis, a pupil is helpless. Where possible we should encourage pupils to see themselves as having agency in both their personal identity, their immediate sphere, and their lives more broadly. Developing pupil autonomy is a key aspect of nurturing their emergent adult identities, along with appreciating responsibility, being critical consumers of information, and making decisions that will benefit themselves and others.
Inclusion does not mean ‘in the classroom at all costs’. Many needs are best met (temporarily or longer-term) outside of the mainstream classroom, where specialist help and feedback can be more easily addressed. This should always aim towards inclusion and re-integration through, e.g. nurture groups, literacy coaching, counselling, transition programs etc.
Removal from the classroom
This is often necessary when the behaviour of a pupil exceeds the capacity of classroom staff to manage, or when the lesson becomes impossible to deliver due to the disruption of one or several pupils. In this instance removal is a positive strategy, not a failure. However, the following points must be considered carefully:
- When pupils are removed from mainstream classes, their reintegration must involve a transition conversation/ activity that sketches what the pupil must do in order to improve, and an understanding of what went wrong previously
- Periods out of the classroom must be characterised by meaningful learning activities that are purposeful and designed to facilitate reintegration
- Where possible, no ‘holding pens’. Simply removing and returning is highly ineffective. However where the class’s education is being immediately affected, it can be considered temporarily as a stop gap measure.
With these, and many other strategies and principles, the good of the many and the few can be simultaneously appreciated and improved. Apart from the effort required to implement consistent routines with high expectations that permit reasonable accommodations (and depending on the cohort and their needs it can be a Herculean effort), this is one of the most rational, rewarding investments a teacher or school leader can make in their community.
Better behaviour benefits everyone. The most vulnerable most of all.
There’s a weird thing I hear sometimes from staff in a school. They say, ‘Oh the School should do x,’ or they’ll say in front of a student, ‘This school is rubbish.’ Students have mentioned to me how odd this sounds- as far as they're concerned the teacher IS the school, or a cell in it at least. When you hear this kind of comment, you know that the school identity is fractured.
I feel a similar way when schools talk about ‘the community’ as if they were some quarantined island, a geosphere hovering above the neighbourhoods. The school student body is overwhelmingly built from the geography of its postcode. The school is part of the community. It can try to put up a drawbridge, but it gets stormed every minute they’re open.
It’s easy to make the mistake that a school is like a supermarket where the students visit, pick up a bag of trigonometry, and leave. But it’s also an alternate dimension in their lives, that intersects messily with home and friends. And they overlap in turn, back with the school. Like the Observer Effect, it is impossible to observe a particle without affecting it. Like Osmosis, when two cells sit together, they swap matter between them. It’s not only abysses that gaze back at us when we stare. It’s other people.
I learned a long time ago that when you work with the public, expect them to drag their entire lives into your short relationships; sometimes the angry customer isn’t upset with you, but at the fact their car broke down on the way. Scratch beneath the surface of any group, and a millimetre beneath the surface lie oceans of tragedy and complexity. And how children behave in schools is enormously governed by what lies beneath.
This week showed that in technicolour. We meet Mia, a 15 year-old looking forward to both her GCSE exams and the birth of a child in the same trimester; Kodie, a school refuser teetering on the edge of dropping out, despite her obvious brains, and Katelyn, a powder keg of emotion, working out, as we all have to, who she is.
Here we see how a school is- or can be- much more than the supermarket. Mia’s family were visited at home to support where she needed to be. You could see the strain on her mum’s face, determined to make sure her daughter’s life didn't stop because of the baby. Her faith and hope for better things was touching and universal, as was Mia’s sincere and obvious joy at the prospect of being a mother. An imperfect scenario probably, but when does life grant us that luxury? We are where we are. With the school’s help, where Mia was looked a bit brighter.
Kodie struggled with other demons; loss, bereavement, anger and frustration, which she took out on herself, and her school career. Her grandfather was a living saint, raising her and being the parent she needed. It became apparent that Kodie was much more than the ‘bother’ she appeared to be; that, with support and the nudge early enough, her trajectory could be pointed at the stars instead of the launch pad. Teaching, you see a lot of girls like Kodie who appear, on the surface, to be primarily a strain. But what lies beneath? Potential is a cheap word- we all have potential. But if we all have potential, then schools need to believe in that potential, and help create it, rather than sculpt it from some imaginary clay.
What is an ecosystem?
And Katelyn, an avatar of anger, bouncing in and out of lessons like a pinball, raging and wailing in quick succession, host to a legion of emotions that she probably can't name or explain herself. When I started teaching I saw that kind of behaviour as nothing but need; it seemed selfish, a parasite on the host of the class, draining my resources from where they needed to be It took me a while to realise that their need was very much my business- as was everyone else’s. That doesn't mean give everything to one at the expense of the many. We have to perform a utilitarian calculus- what can I afford to give to each one? But that is where the greater school community comes in. Teachers cannot manage these situations all by themselves. Often, even the school cannot. But the school as a whole has a greater chance to do so than any one of us. And that’s at the heart of what communities are for.
No hospital turns away a patient for being ‘too ill.’ Similarly no school should bin a pupil for being too needy. I’ve been privileged to see a lot of schools; the best of them make every effort they can to include those who need us the most. That attitude bleeds into its attitude to all pupils: everyone matters here.
Love me tender
Of course, resources are finite, and there are a great many arguments in favour of increasing resources: mental health support, behaviour management, conflict resolution, and many more. But schools do what they can, and this school certainly did. Safeguarding teams, home visits, referrals to CAMHS, endless meetings, mentoring, curriculum adjustments, counselling. Schools are villages inside the communities within which they reside. Messy circumstances don't beget easy solutions, but here we saw some of the fruit of their endeavours, slowly slowly sprouting from the ground. Not answers, but the promise of answers; Katelyn responding to Mr Ince’s lessons, Kodie promising to give school ‘one more try’. If you read the press recently and heard about schools that sweep unwelcome students out to protect their exam results you would boil at this complete degradation of the purpose of schools, and education in general. Compare that ghastly project with what Harrop Fold attempt to do here, with what most schools try to do every day of the year.
Schools do not perform the obvious miracles of the eye surgeon or fire fighter: the blind given sight, the lost soul saved from harm. But we are blessed with the peculiar honour of being a link in the chain of their lives, and sometimes an important one. Often, transformational ones. The catch is that we often never know until years later, which means we often never know. But I know that at the end of this episode at least, Mia gave birth, and eventually went to College. Katelyn went in and out of school, now back, and Kodie got 8 GCSEs. And some of that was down to the school. And that’s not bad.
Every successful series has a problem: carry on until everyone hates you (see: 24), or leave them panting (see: Mad Men). Remember Happy Days, the once-world-conquering period sitcom that outstayed its welcome, and desperate to keep feeding laxatives to the goose with the golden eggs, wrote the cast into new, odd narratives. Magical midget mojo Love God The Fonz memorably ended up water skiing over a shark, in scenes as far removed from his character's core as Freddy Krueger baking cupcakes in Justin’s House. The phrase ‘jumped the shark’ was born, and has not, as yet, jumped the shark itself.
So, has the Educating [insert geographical locale] series jumped the shark? Not yet, if this season's opener is anything to go by. Previous series had been entertaining, often moving, but there was a sense that after their spectacular Essex opening act featuring teacher demi gods like the Buddha of empathy Vic Goddard and Stephen Drew, shoeless standards Samurai, subsequent seasons were photocopies of the last one. Yorkshire (when you’ve watched them as closely as I have, you get to dispense with formalities) defined the high tide of the series’ emotional aspirations as it brought us the unforgettable combination of Musharaf, the adorable teenager who could, and his sardonic, witty mentor Mr Burton who helped him start to overcome his stammer. East End and Cardiff were very good teacher telly indeed, but there are only so many times you can watch the Broken Child Healed By Hope (BCHH) without wondering if there were any other stories to tell.
Thankfully, it feels like- so far- there’s been an attempt to mine more subtle seams. And so they should. There are a thousand pebbles and diamonds in every school, and we need only pick one up and look at it from a new angle. So, what's new?
Clear off, scumbags
Well, it's geographically accurate this time: Salford is indeed Greater Manchester, although it leads to an lumpy title. Maybe they should have sick with Manchester and just borne the apoplexy of purists on social media.
But better, this time the series has started to look at something that every school serving pluralistic communities knows too much about: racism. And more: bullying, intolerance, and the often unpleasant views that live a millimetre beneath the skin of many pupils- and sometimes, staff. This was a huge risk for the producers to take, and an even greater one for the school. There is a little to be gained from participating in this fixed-rig circus, and much to lose. Even Goddard, who came out looking like Moses, admitted that there were swings to each roundabout. Add to this gelignite soup the need to safeguard the students, and we have a rhino pogo-sticking blindfolded through a minefield in the DMZ.
But I think they pulled it off. Migration, integration, and the concomitant possibility of disharmony are the narrative equivalent of playing Operation! drunk. It’s like Eastenders, home to the only East End pub and market where no one uses racist epithets. Maybe understandably. I’ve been to dozens of schools where ethnicity determined community, and worse, defined territory, perceived antagonisms and loyalties. I’ve seen students openly drop racism bombs you hoped had died out with the Doodlebug, and more commonly, heard students unquestioningly trot out the anxieties and callous pieties they could only have learned at their own hearths. I teach Religious Studies and Philosophy so for years I’ve heard pupils express and examine these beliefs, sometimes, openly, sometimes secretly. So I’m not shocked to hear the values and truths pupils often cleave to. I’m just surprised it’s taken so long for TV to get near it.
We meet Mr Povey, this season’s Head teacher, who looks like a haunted Tom Cruise. Every Educating [x] head has this Cromwellian certainty in their eyes, fathomless ambition and enthusiasm. Which is understandable given how mad you would have to be put your heart’s work under a microscope like this. He drives in (with his bruvvers, no less) to Harrop Fold School which has struggled with debt and achievement issues, but now looks poised to flourish.
Remember, Vic: you make the weather
'I feel the need...for GCSEs'
This week we were introduced to Rani, a boy newly arrived (last term) from Syria with his famly. One can only imagine the desperation that drives a family to leave, possibly forever, from the land of their ancestors. Some kids, when asked what they did last Summer, talk about Thorpe Park and Camber Sands; Rani spoke about seeing guns, violence, explosions every day. And even in his refuge, he had walked into further indignity: bullying, the defining vice of the vicious. We saw Ms Bland, head of student support, trying to mend the brittle shoots of Rani’s embryonic relationships with his aggressors. It’s a delicate, fragile thing to do: over mentor and the boy never grows past his shadow; under support and he's crushed by the combine harvester of cruel circumstance.
We saw a carousel of talking heads, which I thought was interesting. Some pupils expressed sympathy with their migrant classmates, but it was remarkable how quickly some of their views turned to traditional bogeyman saws like housing, jobs. No kid ever worried immigrants are coming to take their jobs, just grown ups. And of course, every one of those kids had names you could trace back to migration, recent or historical. Not a Pict or Ancient Briton among them.
One girl even said, kindly, ‘We’re all in the same boat,’ which was sincere and compassionate. But others arrived on entirely different boats, like Murad in year 10, also from Syria. A Kurd from Alleppo, he arrived on a two-hour night raft to Cyrpus. ‘You didn't know if you were going to die,’ he said.
And the most difficult thing for him that he remembered when he arrived? ‘Bullies’, he said without hesitation. Can you imagine that? After running from Hell and braving a second watery Hell to do so, the thing that stood out the most from his arrival was the ghastly tribalism of people who should have been his neighbours and his hosts. I get a strange feeling of shame when I hear about guests and the newly arrived to these shores encountering random, idiotic cruelties and capriciousness, as if some unspoken law of hospitality had been breached. New additions to our communities deserve better.
And good schools like Harrop Fold do their best to make that come true. Murad was assigned to Rani as a mentor, and the sincerity of his desire to nurture and protect the wide-eyed new kid was touching. ‘if anyone touch you you tell me, he said, and suddenly Rani had the coolest, tallest bodyguard a boy could with for.
The school helped even more by putting Rani, not in at the deep end, but through a nurture group for the first few weeks to help him acclimatise. In a scene designed to slay UKIPers everywhere with rage, he even took the class through Salah, the ritual Muslim sequence of prayer. Five years ago that would have been the headline in the tabloids the day after. This time, nothing. Maybe that's progress.
Meet the Fockers
Jack and Rani: original new crime drama from ITV this autumn
Mr Povey did his nut. Rightly. Life is full of paradoxes. Cartoon knobs and FOCK have a comedy that endures until the stars run cold, and vandalism can’t be tolerated in a civil community. I loved his turmoil spilling out in interview as he acknowledged that he probably did a few like that in his own time, but…That’s the burden of adulthood, alas. You think it’s going to be all staying up late and Christmas Cake for breakfast. Instead you end up telling kids off for writing 'Wash me'.
And from a behavioural point if view, what he then did was interesting: he shouted for ‘every student who drew on the van’ to turn themselves in. And amazingly about half a dozen did. Now call me an optimist but that's some kind of healthy community he has there if students are so good they’ll 'fess up when they don't have to. Even Rani started to beetle towards the doom of honest boys until his mates- for they were now his mates- stopped him. ‘You didn't even write on it!’ they reasoned, believing themselves as they said it. And Rani learned a lesson about double-think, and getting away with it. He probably deserved it.
Talking of hositality, Jacks mum seemed as lovely as he was, and in the Salford rain, she invited Rani back for tea at their house. Putting the kettle on might not solve all the world’s problems, but that and a plate of oven chips and pizza appeared to be a good start.
Hurt is a funny thing; it is oten given without intention through ignorance as much as will. At a support group for EAL students, the calm and kind Murad stormed out when a Polish girl, upon hearing that immigration had taken his fingerprints on arrival, said it was ‘Like a terrorist.' His anger was coming from an angry place- how often had he had to endure insults based on his colour or religion, revolving around such words? Who could blame him for living on a hair trigger? But the girl herself was remorseful, explaining that all she meant was ‘they were treating him like a terrorist.’ Neither of them meant badly, and yet when lives are suffused with mistrust, bullying and victimisation, it is easy for common situations to appear menacing.
The lesson, I think, from such situations is to acknowledge that meaning well is often not enough; that we need to work hard to consciously avoid walking into such bear traps. But even as adults this is hard. And when worlds collide, as they so frequently do due to war, budget travel, migration, and the goad of survival, it is all we can do to be patient with one another, try to think the best of each other, and to, whenever we can, love our neighbours as ourselves. Even- or especially- when those neighbours are the alien.
A link to my reviews of series 1: Educating Essex can be found at the bottom of this post here: http://behaviourguru.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/educating-essex-8-parable-of-good.html
- Mr Povey exclaiming 'Sue's Sexy Soup!' in the lunch queue, to no one in particular.
- Rani, when asked how long he would be best friends with Jack: 'Until year 11!' he said. So, there you go Jack: binned for A-levels.
- Big eyebrows still very much being a thing at the time of filming. Bailey lives, yet.
I think it’s important, once in a while, to write about what researchED stands for. It’s important to continually define ourselves, in order not to be misrepresented or misunderstood. Recently some people have asked me where researchED stands on a number of issues, and I am glad to do so.
One of these is representation at conferences. It shouldn't need saying that conferences should represent the communities they serve; but then, many things that shouldn't need saying do need saying, and if we take them for granted, others will create new, bleaker narratives.
So, to be carved in the side of the wall:
researchED welcomes submissions from all people regardless of ethnicity, sexuality, or gender. We particularly welcome submissions from under-represented peoples or groups, considering all such submissions equally. In order to redress historical and cultural misrepresentation, I would urge anyone reading this to encourage any members of underrepresented groups who wish to, to send me a session submission. It would help us to improve representation, (and on a personal note I would welcome the expansion of my networks for future conferences). And we will always endeavour to increase our efforts to improve representation as we grow.
A shorter versions of this is already to be found on the submission page of the researchED website here, and an expanded update will be added shortly to clarify our position.
Representation at conferences
I also acknowledge that as a white man working in the education sector, my own immediate networks are overwhelmingly white. This isn't unusual for many; the term sunset segregation was coined to describe the process where people would often learn, work and travel in highly diverse communities, but when it was time to go home, went back to their often very mono-ethnic communities. While this might be a reasonably instinctive phenomenon, I believe it has no place in a formally organised public event, which should be as representative of the communities it serves as possible.
In the initial year or so of researchED I struggled with breaking past my own immediate networks, and if I’m honest, it probably wasn't as close to the front of my mind as it should have been. In addition there is a problem of representation in the broader educational community (see below). But talking to great educators like Alom Shaha and David McQueen in the UK, and listening to Dr Anthony Dillon and Charlotte Pezaro about this had a significant impact on me, and opened my eyes to the urgency of the matter. At first it was hard to accept that such an obvious thing had been overlooked, however accidentally. Since then it is part of my thinking process for every event, and I’m grateful for the guidance that many people have offered in this matter. I endeavour to do better with each conference as we grow.
I’m delighted to say that our efforts have borne some fruit. Our national conference has just over 140 speakers and 100 sessions. Over 11% of those sessions are presented by people from BAME communities, which at least begins to approach the 2011 census of 13/14% of the UK population, and higher than BAME representation in teaching posts (7.6%) and far higher than the sadly low 3% of BAME representation at leadership level, let alone the terrifying statistic of 0.4% of UK professor posts. The gender representation is almost exactly 50/50. researchED isn’t entitled to any medals for this- it should be automatic. But importantly, it is something we care deeply about, and every co-organiser I work with will testify that it is a routine agenda item in our every discussion. And I’m delighted that it is.
Our mission is to break things
As such, we often provoke strong reactions, particularly from people who might feel their orthodoxies are being challenged. Sometimes this leads to pointless conflict when discussion would be better; to personalised insults rather than ‘let’s talk. researchED is a machine to create change for the better. Change always means knocking a few things over.
No tolerance for intolerance
But, as Karl Popper wrote in ‘The Open Society and its Enemies, 'As paradoxical as it may seem, defending tolerance requires to not tolerate intolerance.’ It is undesirable for any opinion to be expressed without limitation. This is not to suppress the right to hold unpopular opinions, but to acknowledge that in a pluralistic society, any right can come into conflict with other rights. One things researchED will never tolerate is racism. Specifically (in light of recent discussions) the idea that any ethnicity is in any way inferior to another, morally, genetically or in dignity is both factually false and morally repugnant to the principles of researchED. And I know of no research or evidence that indicates otherwise. As educators, our duty is to remove barriers to achievement, not reinforce them; to liberate rather than collaborate in enslavement,
There is of course significant evidence of differences in outcomes for different ethnicities: SAT scores, sentence lengths, imprisonment rates, salary outcomes etc. But these raw data point to societal inequity, circumstantial inequalities, and contextual issues, rather than to an intrinsic personal lack. More importantly, it points to areas in which we need to improve; where we need to find the invisible chains that hold certain strata back, and break those chains from here to Kingdom come. That is the duty of the educator, and it is the duty of everyone in education to enable. And it is researchED’s duty. I would not have anyone speak at the conference on the matter if I thought they thought otherwise. Better evidence in these areas can help us to right these wrongs.
Riches in Heaven
researchED has no staff or significant funding; I started it four years ago on the back of a huge amount of enthusiasm, love and support from many, many people who gave their time freely to help make it happen. Access has always been at the forefront of what we do, and I was determined to make sure that as many people as possible could come. Almost all events are on a Saturday so that employment issues are reduced as a barrier. We run a free creche at the larger events so that parenthood doesn’t prohibit attendance. Most importantly, ticket prices are rock bottom to try to reduce income as a barrier to attendance. Most of our conferences cost around £25 to attend, which includes lunch, coffee and a full program of some of the world’s top voices in education. Most teacher ‘training’ days I see charge upwards of £250-£400 to attend. I wanted to break that mould and make it easy for educators to meet with research generators in useful and symbiotic discussion. I wanted to break down some barriers between those who investigate and those who are investigated.
To some extent I think we’ve succeeded. In one room you might have a government minister taking questions of the evidence base of their latest policy, and next door there might be a teaching assistant discussing how she launched journal clubs at her school. I love that sense of levelling, of democratic representation that it embodies. It’s just one way that teacher (or educator) voice can be platformed.
One issue we currently face is, ironically, one of too-rapid success. We now run about 15 conferences a year, on three continents in 7 or 8 countries. Our national conference has around 1000 attendees this year. And we still have no staff, no capital. Allegations that we must be secretly funded in some way by shadowy conglomerates and HYDRAs make me sigh, wearily, when I wonder if I can pay my mortgage in three months time. But I love running it too much, and I believe in what researchED stands for too much, to let that be an impediment. As long as I am able I’ll support it. I’m incredibly fortunate to work with a small army of volunteers who give up their spare time to help make it happen, and without them, this wouldn't exist.
But this incredibly thread-bare model that has somehow, inexplicably worked for the last few years, means that organisationally we lack the capacity to operate in the way that better funded bodies with spare staff do. I work every day of the week, often way after midnight, just to keep up with the admin, and the decision making. I couldn't do it if the reward wasn't immense, but we are still an army of enthusiasts, and while we may look like a large corporation with committees and subcommittees, it is still largely me and a few volunteers stuffing bags on a Friday night. I hope we can be forgiven some of our frailties that we sometimes appear a little rough round the edges.
False profits of education
There is no profit in researchED, and because I vowed to keep ticket prices low, for the last few years the only way I’ve been able to break even is by accepting sponsorship support from a huge variety of sources. All of our co-sponsors are listed on the website event pages, and they vary from event to event. We’ve been generously supported by a magazine of sources: charities, unions, publishers, research organisations, government institutions…and all with this condition: no one gets a say over who we select to present. We maintain complete editorial and curatorial independence at all of our events. Plus, having so many sponsors means that we experience no financial pressure from any one of them. researchED is driven by moral concerns, not financial ones.
The great thing about being zero profit is that it means we can keep costs low AND it means that people are far more willing to help out for free, whether by speaking, or running a room, or handing out fliers. It’s been amazing to see what is possible with love, determination, and a sense of achieving a public, common good.
A tall poppy?
We welcome informed and positive feedback to help us improve, and I'm grateful to many of the people who contacted me recently, most of whom did so in a collegiate and collaborative way. Do other events receive as much scrutiny over this? I don't know. I think if I’m honest I suspect some of the less positive scrutiny is because researchED represents a challenge to the status quo in education. We want to reform education for all children and teachers. We want every child taught in as evidence-informed a manner as possible. That means change from what we do at present; and many do not like change. We also represent an unashamedly empirical attitude in our sessions, and many do not like that either, preferring other approaches. It’s a big world and there are room for lots of kinds of conferences, and I have no objection to any of them existing. But we must allow plurality of viewpoint in the education system.
And you know who benefits most from working with evidence? Children. And of them, who benefits most? The least advantaged. Those with no second chances, no tutors, no jobs waiting for them in publishing no matter how they do. The children who are poor, marginalised, miles away from the opportunities and privileges of the elite. They are the ones who need this the most. It is our duty to over turn every dogma we have, obtain the best evidence we can, and turn that into rocket fuel for the ones that need it the most. Evidence informed education is the best vehicle for that I can think of.
And that's what researchED stands for, and continues to stand for, and always will. I hope to see you at a future conference where together we can pull down the moon an inch at a time.
Terra AustralisAustralia is an extraordinary place to come, especially if you’re British. The mixture of instant familiarity (driving on the left as all civilised peoples do, fried breakfasts, Cockney phonics buried inside carefree New World idiom) and the novel (dim sum next to baked beans, a menagerie of animals apparently constructed by God for a dare) creates an uncanny valley. Like you woke up in an alternate timeline where Britain was at once sunny, healthy and positive.Nowhere I this demonstrated more clearly than in that totem of Terra Australis, the humble Tim Tam. I can summarise it in two words: Aussie Penguin (the biscuit, not the improbable saviours of zoos’ balance sheets). I already have orders from three separate people in the UK for boxes of them, like Antipodean contraband). But it’s a Penguin with an x factor I can’t quite name. A twist of vanilla perhaps, like someone sent a Penguin through a teleporter with a 99. And it is very delicious, an Umpty Candy for our age.Aussie ed reminds me of this. I’ve been fortunate enough to eke my way across several countries with researchED in my knapsack: Sweden, Norway, USA, Netherlands, Australia, and next year possibly Ireland, South Korea, New Zealand- we’re even in talks with schools in the UAE and Spain. Every time I’m fascinated to discover how education plays out in each territory. It’s like foreign tongues: the vocabulary and grammar are frequently alien, but the underlying conventions of language remain. Every country appears to be wrestling with many of the same devils as every other country.In some ways, this is unsurprising: the process of educating children has evolved as a societal necessity, and certain conventions emerge and converge due to circumstances universal to the human condition: the classroom, the teacher-expert, the taxonomy of curriculum, testing, certification, graduation, the lingua franca of instruction. As organisms evolve circulatory, respiratory, excretory systems in a ticker tape of styles, education throws up the same issue whether the school bells sounds over Doha or Dunfermline. Autonomy; selection; instruction and enquiry; whole child or subject…these and many others are the wrestling rings of debate.Which is why I’ve found attending researchEDs aboard so incredibly instructive; the same debates with different accents, angles and nuance. Educational tourism is of course a dangerous game; often we find that what propels a perceived outcome (such as literacy or tertiary education enrolment) can be aligned as much with cultural contextual factors (such as teacher status, simplicity of language forms, social norms about university) as with policy levers and school systems.But if we are careful we can learn from one another. The key caveat is to remember that correlation is not causation; that constant conjunction of two factors (such as waking up with a sore head and it being Saturday morning) may not be causal. So when we visit Singapore, or Finland we avoid drawing simple inferences about school starting age, bean bags, first name terms with teachers and wraparound tutoring and classes of 75. Some plants look beautiful in a jungle, but need imported soil and sunlight to thrive. British classrooms are not terrariums. Mango trees will not last a winter in Regent’s Park.And other flora and fauna will. Look at rabbits, one of many unwelcome presents the British gifted Australia with. Or Highland cows (Latin: Heelan’ Coos) that chewed the cud in Mongolia for millennia before they were kidnapped to Scotland and made to produce toffee for people who couldn’t otherwise afford tooth extraction. I am fascinated by what we can and cannot learn from our neighbours, what will and will not take root abroad. There is an obvious advantage offered here: rather than launch costly (and no doubt unethical) vast social experiments in different education systems to work out which ones are most effective, we can just peer over the border and see what our neighbours are up to. In theory.I learned a lot (my bar is low, and like a pupil on a G grade I make fastest progress) from Australia and the two researchEDs we put together in Melbourne, one at Brighton Grammar School and one in partnership with the ACE conference. Hundreds of teachers, school leaders, academics, researchers, and everyone else in between self-assembled to learn from one another and the fantastic array of speakers who had given their time for free to talk to their colleagues.There were too many to mention of thank here, but some highlights that I managed to get to were:Professor John Sweller, famous forhis work on Cognitive Load theory and developing Geary’s idea of Biologically Primary and Secondary Knowledge, which has proven to be increasingly influential in our understanding of why some forms of teaching may or may not be more or less effective in different contexts. His quiet, patient unpacking of his topic contrasted enormously with….John Hattie, who is as close to a rock star in edu-conferences as you’ll find. I believe he and Dylan Wiliam are opening the Pyramid stage on Glastonbury next year. His grasp of meta-studies and the energetic, passionate enthusiasm with which he delivers it, make him one of our best communicators in education. Inevitably, one so prominent attracts criticism: for the 0.4 hinge effect size, the nature of meta studies, and so on. But he is undeniably one of our most important voices in the Great Debate, and rightly feted as a giant in the canon.Katie Roberts Hull from Learning First, who talked about Evidence Based Professional Learning and the implications for effective practice. In many ways this seemed to echo some of the excellent work done by the Teacher Development Trust in this field. Her idea that professional learning needs to be sustained over a long period, and connected to a learning goal, echoed deeply with me, when I see so much CPD and INSET based on a snapshot model where teachers spend a day at a Novotel taking away a bag of notes and often little else.Tanya Vaughan from Social Ventures Australia, along with John Bush, was spreading the gospel of the Teaching and Learning Toolkit, and carefully explaining the significance of the lock, the dollar and the months-progress ideas. I hope she’s ready for years of people still asking what they mean like the UK.Jennifer Buckingham heads up the CIS’s ‘Five for Five project’, which promotes the five main aspects of reading instruction that comprise our best evidenced practice. The resistance to this internationally is extraordinary, and even more extraordinary when you consider the enormous evidence in its favour. It’s a Sisyphean task at times, but when literacy is at stake, a vital one, and people like Jennifer are goddamn heroes for batting on their behalf against the snake oil dingos.Greg Ashman. Australia’s deadpan knight errant, and for my money one of the best bloggers writing about education in the game. Prolific, spiky and usually dead on. He’s one of my must-follows for anyone interested in the intersection between practice and theory.Stephen Norton delivered a brilliant keynote on maths instruction, international comparisons between pedagogy, and the relative merits of enquiry versus explicit instruction. The results, it had to be said, were not in enquiry’s favour.And Stephen Dinham. And Pam Snow, and Ben Evans…and too many others to mention. A huge thanks to Helen Pike and ACE for making the whole trip possible, to Brighton Grammar School for giving until it hurt, and to all the speakers who gave their time so freely. Kindness and generosity frequently makes the miraculous possible.
I took part in a fascinating panel for the Wellington Festival of Education last week. Myself, Laura McInerney, Maria Arpa and Katherine Birbalsingh were quizzed about behaviour in schools (watch it here). Within about two minutes lines were drawn and it was game on.Of course any attempt to reduce anything as complex as human behaviour to a coin toss of possible answers risks bleeding it dry of the complexity that makes it a conundrum rather than a pop quiz. Do what you’re told, or do what you want? Compliance or defiance? Autonomy or lobotomy? A lot of debate about behaviour barrels around these poles like flies around a lampshade. They make better headlines than strategy.Never mind the hyperboleThe first question was ‘Is there a behaviour crisis?’ I would say it’s not obvious because the word is problematic. Crisis implies an emerging situation under so much pressure it cannot bear much more before it collapses or explodes. I think the behaviour problem is real, deep and tragic precisely because it isn’t that; in fact, it’s endured for decades and can continue to do so, gasping and grasping from the sick bed. McInerney mentioned Alasdair Campbell, who only considered it a crisis if the military had to be called in. (Perhaps we should be more worried by the Troops to Teachers program than we think?)Katherine Birbalsingh, who can normally be counted on to barnstorm like Elijah, was as mild-mannered as someone with Xanax in their Special K. Turns out she was just stretching out like a Sumo. She broke into a jog when asked what the main behaviour problem was. “It’s not just TA’s being assaulted’ she said. ‘It’s the low-level disruption, You see them on the buses, and we’ve just come to accept the behaviour. ''Children push,’ she said. ‘We push back.’ And I could hear her angry fan club on social media set their blog-phasers to ‘gnash’.Maria Arpa said she thought children shouldn’t be expected to be just behave. They had to want to behave. This is certainly a laudable ambition. The obvious bogeyman to contrast this with is compliance, that pantomime villain of behaviour management. Compliance connotes so negatively, doesn’t it? Coercion, oppression, subjugation. It’s an egregious word the instant it tumbles from your lips.The appliance of complianceBut I think we can reform it a little. For me, compliance is the first step in a ladder that takes children to extraordinary heights of habit way beyond mere slavish adherence to convention and into the realms of independently reasoned decisions. But before we can get there we need children, on those first rungs of maturity, wisdom and social awareness, to comply with moral rules, set for their benefit and the mutual benefit of all. I don’t discuss with a three-year-old whether or not to hit a peer while there’s any chance of it happening. No; at first, I forbid and prohibit, and explain why elsewhere. These combinations of prohibitions and admonitions become a set of habits, which become character. If these guidelines are good and useful, the child acquires useful and good habits of character, which are portable, and live on in them long after the teachable moments.In fact, not to do this, and not to expect compliance, is a disservice to the child and an abdication of the precious duty we have to raise our children with every advantage possible. Sure, it sounds great in theory that we could reason our every ethical dilemma with children every time, but this misses two key issues. a) We only partially reason rationally. Much of what we consider to be our wise judgement, is an emotional response. And b) It just isn’t practical. What if they simply disagree with us? What if, after all our lovely discussion, children simply want to pursue their own self-interest? This is called the Free Rider problem, and is the reason why, even though it might seem in everyone’s interests to be good, so many people aren’t. If you were perfectly rational you might conclude that the wisest course would be for everyone else to be moral, and for you to be wily and wicked, and exploit the poor saps.And this is why reason and patience alone will not make us moral. At some point, we simply need to instruct children to be so, and expect it, and alongside all the lovely conversations about kind hands and how do you think Tariq felt when you did that, there has to be oceans of you just can’t and because I said so.
Michaela School, yesterdayDo it- or I'll tell you to do it againI agree that discussion is a more lovely way to encourage social behaviour than enforcement. But the simple, stark and stone-cold truth is that it isn’t an efficient way to run a community beyond two or three people. We all have very different ideas about right and wrong; we dispute every term imaginable, from justice to equality to good manners. If we left it to individuals to work out what each meant every time we needed to think about it, life would be a series of struggles that would consume our every instant.Cultures thrive on shared understandings of what is meant by good conduct. Watch children howl as you apply one rule for one person but not for another. You simply can’t get students to all agree what the right thing to do is, even if you negotiate with them. For a start, some children will simply disagree about the rules of conduct, or lateness, or homework, if you let them co-create it. And every time you defer the responsibility of decision to a pupil you undermine the authority of the teacher to regulate and monitor the culture of the classroom. And that means you can’t keep them safe. It means you can’t provide what they need the most; a calm space where they know they are valued, free from bullying and interference, and free to learn and flourish.Because what are consequences if not a way to show students that their actions matter? That they are not invisible? That someone cares about what they do? Some decry sanctions. Arpa calls them ‘Violence.’ My eyeballs almost spun in their sockets and my face made a very serviceable OMG GIF. This could not be further from the truth. She, and many who share her view, believe that systems based on rules and consequences breed violence; endorse violence; multiply violence. I think this stretches the concept of violence so far it snaps like a banjo string. If rules have no consequences attached to their infraction, then even the simplest of children realises quickly there is no rule at all.
Consequences are like the alarm bell that stops you reversing into a bollard on your car; an uncomfortable reminder that a poor choice is being made. There are many other reactions one can have to good or bad behaviour- sanctions and rewards are only two arrows in a quiver that quivers with possibility, from conversations, to meetings to education to interventions. But they are an essential- not optional- part of how we mould and help sculpt young adults into better versions of themselves.I've seen things you wouldn't believe
Arpa is a sincere, intelligent and deeply caring person, committed to the well-being of children and adults. But these ideas are part of the reason why we have such intemperate and inconsistent behaviour in schools today. We train teachers not nearly enough in effective ways to anticipate and resolve challenge at a structural level. We offer no guaranteed training to school leaders who want guidance in creating effective school cultures. And far, far too much of the advice on offer where it does exist, is of this variety: that rules are oppressive, that children will thrive if only we granted them more and more autonomy.Neither are complex enough to be true rather than merely pretty and pious platitudes. Children desperately need us; they need adult guidance. That requires us to be adults; to admit our responsibilities and take them seriously. Far too often we are advised in these matters by well-meaning people who have never had to deal with the reality of thirty, not a few children, in a teaching rather than a therapeutic context.Teach the children you have, not the ones you want
There was a sensible question at the end. Could you run a society on principles of restorative justice? And of course, the answer is no. No society ever has. You simply can’t expect large communities to self-regulate through reasoned discussion. It would be lovely, but it’s a utopian fantasy. And the sad reality of utopias is that when they go wrong, it’s never the wealthy who suffer most, but the people it was intended to emancipate. Its why we have prisons and police rather than enormous voucher reward schemes for M&S.
Rules optimise justice and stability. Broken rules need to be mended and reinforced. People are imperfect. We can strive for a more perfect community, but not on a cloud of enthusiastic but impractical fantasy. In every teacher movie, broken urchins are healed by the love of a teacher who never gave up on them. That’s true, but if we don’t also teach them how to behave, then all we’re doing is hugging them into poverty.
'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 14What’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 moneyOk, 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 techI’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 childrenPublic 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
'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.
Judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree and it’ll spend a lifetime thinking it’s stupid
Albert EinsteinYou’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 SystemLet’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 80sThe 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 BingoIf 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.’
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.’