1. 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


    researchED delights in debate, changing paradigms, and helping to generate a polite revolution in the classroom. I started it because I believed passionately- and still do- that education needs a revival, if not a reboot. It labours under so many false dogma and uninformed suppositions that in many ways it resembles medicine in the 18th century, when the doctor’s authority was privileged, and his hunch was the final word. Just as medicine finally succumbed to empirical science, so too should education- as an aid to our decisions, not as an authoritarian mosaic tablet. It should intersect with our every action, so that when evidence is available we use it to inform our pedagogy and policy rather than stifle it. Bogus fads like Learning Styles and Brain Gym are the least of it; wild, unchecked pseudoscience abounds, untested, unrestrained. It is still possible for a teacher to be told that group work is the best way for children to learn, without any consideration of when, and where and how it might be applicable. teacher talk is reviled, despite the enormous amount of research that suggests that careful, dialogic teacher talk is one of the most effective ways to convey information that is then retained. There are many more example of such things. None of these matters are settled, but every educator should be entitled to hear the evidence on both sides and make up their minds. on the matter.

    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.

    Hail Hydra

    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.

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  2. Terra Australis


    Australia 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.




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  3. 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 hyperbole

    The 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 compliance

    But 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, yesterday 
    Arpa said she wanted to get rid of behaviour management from teacher training, and half-jokingly I suggested that her wish had already been granted. Some providers do a great job, but there are still too many ITT platforms that de-emphasise behaviour management, or teach queer platitudes that are at best useless and at worst harmful: things like ‘try to make them laugh,’ or ‘There’s no such thing as bad behaviour, just a badly planned lesson,’ or one of my favourites, ‘Every behaviour is a communication,’ which might be true, but often what’s being communicated is ‘I fancy a bit of fun at someone else’s expense.’ It’s something I’m working to change, with the work we did as part of the ITT review into behaviour management training.

    Do it- or I'll tell you to do it again

    I 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.
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  4. '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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  5. '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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  6. 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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  7. 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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  8. 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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  9. 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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  10. '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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