Is it really all about relationships?

The Ngram Viewer from Google Books ( https://books.google.com/ngrams ) is an addictive tool. It measures the frequency with which specific words are/have been used in printed resources during the last 200 years or so. For those inclined to speak like a 60s music-festival goer, it’s interesting to note the popularity of the word ‘swell’ has been declining ever since 1800 whereas ‘groovy’ has been on the (possibly ironic) comeback trail in the last two decades. It still has some way to go to match its late-60s peak, however.

It would be interesting to note the results if a tool existed only for education. Words like ‘assessment for learning’ have had their day and no-one mentions fidget-spinners much any more. How long before growth mindset, resilience, advocacy and engagement are washed away in the swell? Thus suffering a similar fate to the word ‘swell’, in fact.

Many of the more trite educational bios and pinned tweets attest to the importance of relationships in teaching, and by ‘importance’, I mean a sense of certainty that literally nothing else matters. Examples include:

  • ‘Teaching is 80% relationships and 20% relationships’.
  • ‘Classroom management is not about having the right rules…it’s about having the right relationships.

Admittedly, one of these is from the (I presume) parody account @steelethoughts , but witticisms such as these are plastered all over the Twittersphere to inform teachers that you’re well advised to work on relationships ahead of all else.

The main problem with this invective is that is doubles down on teachers. If you are finding classroom management difficult, it’s your fault for not building the right relationships with the children you teach. The pupils are behaving badly, and it’s all your fault. If the pupils are bored or poorly behaved, you therefore need to make the content more relevant and engaging in a desperate bid to get the relationships back on track.

I see this in real life too. I have been interviewing a lot over the past week or so, and most application letters talk to the need to foster the right relationships. It can be hard to keep teachers from veering into the personal lives of students during the interview process too, as teachers vie to out-care each other. Conversations about teaching can easily drift into the need to fit content to student interest, and even worse, to make everything relevant to the pupils’ lives. The assumption that no young person could find something interesting unless they are placed at the centre of it is an unfortunate assumption and probably unfair on the students themselves.

The teacher-pupil relationship need not be a complicated one. It is important to show you care; that you care enough to support and challenge each child as necessary. It is also worth being totally clear about rules, routines and expectations and to expect each child to come up to your expectations. It is not your job to come down to theirs. Show that you believe in them by setting the bar high and expecting them (with appropriate support and advice) to clear it. Show that you do not expect second best from yourself or them, but be willing to forgive them (and yourself) the odd mistake. Use language like ‘we’ rather than ‘you’ and ‘I’. Understand the importance of the swift and deft approach to praise and admonishment and that a few words at the start or end of a lesson are generally more effective than that same words delivered during the lesson. Pupils are not very good at faking affection, so when it’s palpable, it’s real. But don’t expect it too soon – it takes time for the penny to drop that everything you do is derived from care.

Don’t waste your time prying into their personal life or relationships with friends and partners. Spend time working out what they are really like as human beings, and your relationship will be all the richer. Our lives and the lives of those we teach do not run parallel; we intersect with their lives on occasions and we hope some good will come of these intersections. The modern message that we need to clumsily clamber into their lives in order to foster a strong relationship is inherently wrong. Teachers are not friends and teachers are not parents. Being an excellent teacher and modelling hard work and emotional consistency is plenty. Leave the trite statements to the trite people.

Advertisements

Core, not corona

I watched the education special on Q and A last night. It was in fact advertised as a ‘teaching special’. It is impossible in one hour of discussion to address all issues concerning teaching, but the terms of reference might have included discussion about what makes an excellent teacher and perhaps where our current system of education is working well, and what might be improved. These are central issues, but much of the programme concentrated on items that ranged between the emotive and the peripheral.

Here’s a peripheral item: I do not believe that the Finnish education system merits much air-play when discussing issues facing Australian schooling. Finland is a country as far from Australia culturally as it is geographically and it makes no more sense to focus on Finland than any other country high up in PISA rankings, such as Estonia or Singapore. Given that Finland has been on the slide over the past decade, it is even more nonsensical to ape their educational philosophy. The excitement about Finnish education seems be that if one assumes their system is the highest performing in the world (it isn’t) and then cherry-picks aspects of their system (children start School at a later age, an absence of standardised testing), it appears we can improve Australian education by working fewer hours and abandoning testing. It’s a comforting message: make things better by doing less work and creating less stress. Just to be clear, the bit about a lack of standardised testing in Finland isn’t true, but that generally gets glossed over, and of course, cherry-picking only the bits one finds palatable is unlikely to produce success.

Now that’s off my chest, much of the discussion (when Finland wasn’t being trumpeted) centred on testing – exam stress, the genuine value of NAPLAN, and teacher workload (also linked to testing). The question of what makes an excellent teacher, and how we might seek to employ, develop and retain more of these people, never got much of a look-in. This is a great shame, because if your country has all the best teachers, it’s certain that its children will be educated well. Why did the conversation focus so much on testing, therefore? The simple answer is that this panders to the current narrative of stressed teens and a factory model of education (where pupils are treated as though they are on a conveyor belt). We can then all blame the exams for the alleged rise of mental health issues and claim that if we just trusted teachers and abandoned standardised testing, all would be well. But when issues are complex, answers are rarely simple, and if we really want to get to the core (rather than fiddle around at the corona), we need to interrogate education in a more fundamental sense.

I believe the role of examinations and assessment is simple – they exist to test what pupils know and what they can do. Assessment should not be the main focus – learning is the focus, and assessment provides a valid measure of that learning. Assessment should not be invasive but it should be standardised. I don’t know why the ‘standardised’ aspect gets so many people riled. Standardised simply means ‘fair’ and ‘valid’ in this case; it is not some affront to the individuality of children. I sense that many object to the word without having spent time considering what it means. The exact nature of the assessment may vary from subject to subject but it must be valid, transparent and open to as little subjectivity as possible. If you are going to assess via examination, these should be externally written, marked, contain varied styles of question and not be so generic that one is able to perform well via extended practice of previous similar papers. We should be able to extrapolate from any task, in order to make valid judgments about what the individual pupil knows and understands in that subject.

Australia has a bizarre love-hate relationship with testing and assessment. One the one hand, examinations and assessment tasks are often made the end goal, therefore taking on a significance greater than the learning of essential subject matter. This prioritising of the examination over the content (or even the enjoyment of learning) is akin to prioritising the driving test over the ability to drive. If we trust our educative process, the quality of our teachers and the hard work of our pupils, examinations and assessments should look after themselves. Stress and worry is reduced, partly because the pupils are better educated, but also because the assessment does not have an overblown sense of importance attached to it. However, many of the same teachers who promote assessment as the main purpose and end-goal of education are also those who claim that an over-focus leads to stress in teachers and pupils alike. I don’t think you can have it both ways.

I expect by de-emphasising the importance of testing, we could free up teachers to teach and pupils to learn. We may even re-discover joy in learning things that are unrelated (at least directly) to essential content and find that making connections allows us to understand more, and be more creative. Steve Jobs said that ‘creativity is just connecting things’, and there is some fundamental education wisdom in those five words.

I therefore believe that by concentrating on NAPLAN and Finland, we ignore (perhaps deliberately) the most important issue facing us, and that is the casual side-lining of intellectual development, when this should be the main purpose of education. Success in examinations is a by-product of intellectual development, and if we are to re-emphasise this as the main purpose, we will require a flipping of focus. It will also require a deep cultural shift in Australian education, and perhaps in the country as a whole. To take the words of the national anthem: Beneath our radiant Southern Cross We’ll toil with hearts and hands…; perhaps hearts and minds might be a good place to start?

 

A belief in the expertise of experts

Anyone who has been taught by me will know that I am a devotee of the late Richard Feynman. Feynman was a brilliant physicist and Nobel prize winner. He worked on the Manhatten project early in his career and the investigation into the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster shortly before his death. He was a bongo-playing oddball, and a regular visitor to strip bars, where he seemed to gain inspiration for his study of Physics. His documentary The Pleasure of Finding Things Out is one of the great science programmes, involving little more than Feynman talking to camera. He could lecture to brilliant scientists and explain science to the layman. He was a superb intellect, but also a wonderful teacher.

When teaching a new junior class, I used to begin with a Feynman quote: ‘science is the belief in the ignorance of experts’. I took this to mean one should not accept something as truth because a nominal expert decreed it to be the case. The scientific method allows one to come to their own conclusions through rigorous experimentation, data collection and the analysis of these data. I don’t think Feynman was suggesting experts are not to be believed as a matter of course, but given they are not infallible, appropriate scepticism is healthy.

The UK politician and Brexit supporter Michael Gove went further, suggesting in 2016 that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’. This was in response to the general consensus amongst EU Economists that Brexit would be an economic disaster. This rejection of expertise in order to further his own agenda was perhaps understandable. What was less understandable was the fact this anti-logic ended up bringing it home for Brexit, the full ramifications of which we are yet to find out.

Donald Trump recently announced the possibility of creating Space Force, which despite sounding like a straight to DVD 80s film starring Steve Guttenberg, is in fact a supposedly necessary addition to the US military, given that, according to POTUS, ‘space is a war-fighting domain just like the land, air and sea’. Except it isn’t, of course. This didn’t stop his supporters embracing the idea. One amateur conspiracy theorist claimed Space Force will be responsible for space exploration and rather than being disappointed when informed this was the job of NASA, mysteriously stated that ‘NASA just tell us what they want us to know’.

The success of Trump and Brexit in winning over the electorate are both are rooted in an appeal to the fundamental mistrust of experts and expertise. We are wary of those who know far more than us, and the likelihood that their advanced expertise will be used to hoodwink us. We feel powerless when confronted by those with genuine expertise and instead rush to the appeal of the common man; the man who tells it like it is. Who wants to listen to an expert urging caution when we can revel in the bombast of an inexpert foghorn?

The Dunning-Kruger effect suggests that people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is. Put in simple terms – if you don’t know what you don’t know, you may believe that you know it all. Experts tend to be aware of the limits of their knowledge and understanding, but some novices mistakenly believe their own non-expertise allows them to make valid decisions. They underestimate massively the extent to which their knowledge is limited. Ignorance, perhaps, is bliss.

This has led to a worrying strain of anti-intellectualism, where voters are drawn to politicians and political parties that routinely display disdain for expertise. Don’t like what the data on climate change tells you? Simply discredit the source as an expert. We’ve all had enough of those. When a politician is no longer constrained by facts or objective truth, political debate becomes little more than a points-scoring slanging match, which plays into the hands of playground politicians like Donald Trump.

Cognitive science tells us that novices and experts have different cognitive architecture. Novices, in any field, are constrained by the limits of working memory, which can only cope with a few pieces of information. Novices rely on this working memory, which becomes overloaded quickly. Experts however have large interconnected tracts of knowledge called schemas, which are firmly embedded in (to all intents and purposes limitless) long-term memory. These can be easily retrieved to ensure working memory does not become overloaded. For this reason, it is pointless to talk of students ‘thinking like scientists’ or ‘thinking like historians’ because by their very nature they are novices, not experts. Scientists think like scientists because of their domain-specific schema, and to reject this expertise is foolish in the extreme.

It is interesting to note in recent decades that the average age of Nobel prize winners has been increasing. This is because in order to advance scientific knowledge one needs to first understand up to and including the current ‘bleeding edge’. Only then is one able to extend that edge. As the edge moves further away, it takes longer to reach, hence the Nobel prize winners are becoming more venerable. Perhaps an appropriate analogy is that they are now having to stand on the shoulders of a greater number of giants.

Expertise is something we should treasure in others and aspire to ourselves. The majority of us are generalists, and few devote their life to the study of a single area. Those who do are collectively responsible for furthering human understanding and they deserve our respect and admiration, not our scepticism and rejection. We are not going to be able to educate the finest minds of the next generation without employing some of the finest minds of our own. We should firmly believe in the brilliance of experts.

Italia ‘90

During my career, I have taught all age groups between 11 and 18. I have taught mainly at the upper end of that range, but the younger pupils are the most enjoyable to educate. They do not see education as something to be negotiated, or endured. They don’t tend to ask about the syllabus, or whether this will be on the test. They embrace irrelevant material with the same open mind as content central to the course. They delight in tangential learning. They ask questions that test the teacher, such is the width of their imagination. They approach learning without cynicism or pragmatism. If something is presented as interesting, they will run with it, interrogating it until understanding is teased out.

The 11, 12 or 13 year-old pupil is adept at expressing himself (or herself) and knows something of the world by this point. However, understanding is inevitably limited and therefore every new piece of learning is a potential gateway into something much larger. This pupil has not become dulled by screen exposure and it is unusual for teenage angst to have taken over as a dominant emotion. The spectre of assessments and external examinations has yet to hove into view and the desperate need to conform to the appearance, attitudes and opinions of one’s peers is still some way off.

There’s a focused energy that manifests itself in insatiable curiosity; the desire to ask question after question on matters of genuine interest. There’s also a pleasing lack of cynicism, unless they have become old before their time. My experience is that children are far more resilient than we give them credit for; many who speak of a lack of robustness in boys and girls are really attempting to push their own neuroses onto children. The world is a far more fascinating place when you have yet to fully work it out, or understand how you might play a part in its development. The world is an exciting place when observed from a height of just over a metre and consequently you’re forced to look up and wonder.

I reflect on this having recently watched the highlights from Italia ‘90, the 14th FIFA World Cup. I was glued to every game I was able to watch, being a 13 year old just out of Prep School in London. There is still much I remember about the tournament, and the football is only part of it. The names of the players, their clubs, the places and the history of the World Cup provided me with a gateway into much more and I existed for a few weeks in a wonderful place between true understanding and total ignorance. It was a sort of ‘zone of curiosity’, made more exciting for my grasp being tenuous.

The mad staring eyes of Toto Schillaci were often described as being typically Sicilian and I was therefore convinced there was a place in Italy where the inhabitants all possessed eyes like Marty Feldman. England played their group games in Cagliari, with its giant amphitheatre and necropolis and it seemed unusual to be playing matches on an island away from mainland Italy when other teams were fighting it out in glorious stadiums called the San Siro and Stadio delle Alpi. D H Lawrence wrote about Cagliari in his memoir, Sea and Sardinia and his trip of 69 years earlier felt like a very long time ago, though Peter Shilton had been playing professional football since before I was born, so he might as well have been on the boat with Lawrence. Not that they would have found much to talk about. I remember being excited that Chris Waddle played for Marseille when all the other players were marooned in English football and I reserved particular fondness for Steve Bull, who despite being good enough to play for England, plied his trade in the second division, presumably due to a sense of loyalty for his club, Wolverhampton Wanderers. I could only imagine Wolverhampton was a place of rare beauty, a bit like Ashby-de-la-Zouch, where you could get a free bar of chocolate if your own turned out to be defective. Your statutory rights were not affected.

I remember enjoying the silky violence of the Cameroon team, until they played England anyway. I was convinced the Argentinians were all cheats and was delighted to see Maradona in tears after the final. That was one back for Las Malvinas. I watched Lothar Matthaus’ goal versus Yugoslavia over and over and wondered how Scotland could manage to lose to Costa Rica. I had no idea where Costa Rica was or anything about the country, but it didn’t seem right for Scotland to lose to a country I presumed was a small Island off the Spanish coast. I remember being disappointed in Brazil too, having watched the 1970 final highlights and expected them to play like this al, the time. Incidentally, the moment where Pele dummies the ‘keeper might be my favourite bit of football, made better by the fact he misses the chance after all the hard work.

After all that rose-tinted rambling, there probably needs to be a conclusion. In short, it’s great being that age. You feel protected by family, excited about the world and keen to learn more about it. Almost anything is interesting if you’re willing to delve into it, and even when your team goes out on penalties in the semi-final, you’ve only got to wait for another 28 years for that to be put right. Let us all try to retain a little of the wide-eyed curiosity we had at the age of 13.

Praying for Gonski 3.0

We were treated to Gonski 2.0 this week. You can read the full report here, though it does come with the following health warning: you may find your blood pressure raised considerably as you trawl one edu-cliche after another. At least it has the good grace to wait until page 2 before taking a pot-shot at the fallacy of the ‘industrial model of School education’, but this sets the tone for a paper that shows scant regard for evidence and logic, instead focusing on the hardly-new ideas of the two ‘R’s: Rousseau (personalised learning) and Robinson (teaching creativity, and other ‘general capabilities’).

Whereas no-one would argue the desire to develop individuals that are independent, creative and collaborative critical thinkers, this is not going to happen by attempting to teach these skills directly. We all want pupils to comprehend what they read, to critically evaluate material and to develop informed opinions on issues of national and international importance, but starting with the end-goal rarely works. The tape at the finish line is not broken until the race has been run, and we’re ignoring the race itself by focusing only on the tape. I’ll admit this analogy doesn’t work fully, because education does not have a finishing line – there is always more depth and breadth to every aspect of education. Education does have a start line, however, and we set the next generation up for failure if we ignore what happens after this start.

Just three years after the Australian National Curriculum was agreed and adopted by all States, the Gonski panel now provides a Review to Achieve Excellence in Australian Schools. More erudite individuals than I have offered their criticism of the report here and here so I don’t expect I am adding anything new, but I will take a swing at what I think is the most misguided of all the key themes appearing periodically throughout the 23 (!) recommendations.

I mentioned the Australian Curriculum in the previous paragraph, and I suppose in its current format it is a curriculum of sorts. It is light on content and academic rigour; it is repetitive; it offers little by way of logical academic progression. However, given that it leads into separate individual State-developed programmes of study in Years 11 and 12, it was always likely to pander to the lowest common denominator. For example, my own State’s flagship programme, the SACE, assumes limited prior knowledge for a variety of its subjects, such that an intelligent individual could take up a subject from scratch in Year 11 (or even Year 12), and reach apparent ‘mastery’ just 30-odd weeks later.

The Gonski report, despite mentioning the word curriculum, suggests its fragmentation to the point that, as reported by the ABC:

‘Teachers could then create individual learning plans for students that would not be tied to what year group they are in.’

This suggests that we are committing to personalised learning, differentiated instruction (taken to an extreme level) and effectively allowing pupils to learn what they like.

This is the very opposite of what a curriculum should be – that is, the essential knowledge and understanding we expect pupils to develop in a specific course. Presumably, we want all Australian Schoolchildren to be able to read, write and be numerate, but we also want them to know about the battle of Gallipoli (and in full context), about the colonial history of the country and the stolen generation, to name just two examples.

Curriculum *is* important and there must be a body of knowledge, a ‘tradition’, that we wish to pass on from generation to generation, even if these things are available (to some degree) on the internet. By knowing and understanding the substance of the subjects and the communal information we deem necessary to know, we are better able to understand ourselves, our nationality and our humanity. This knowledge is not just something we learn for exams, henceforth to be forgotten; it is something that exists within us, often in the background, to enable us to make wise decisions, to have compassion for others and to better understand ourselves. When, in Hamlet, the unstable Ophelia says ‘Lord, we know what we are, but not what we may be’, she hints at the uncertainty of the future (coincidentally a favourite topic amongst the edu-scaremongers). But the further we move into the future and the more knowledge and understanding we develop, we also know better who we are.

If we allow all pupils to follow individualised learning paths, we lose the joy of communal learning, unless it occurs by coincidence. We are less able to understand each other and each other’s point of view. There is a certain selfishness in learning only what interests you, rather than what might be good or useful. Expanding on this point, it fits within the context of that modern-day phenomenon, the veneration of the child. Many of us are terrified lest children should ever be bored, unhappy or academically challenged. By allowing for personalised learning, we promote selfishness, entitlement and ‘what I want’, rather than what is good for me. One of the Gonski recommendations is to… ensure all students have the opportunity within schools to be partners in their own learning. This is at best specious; how can students not be the dominant partner in their own learning, given that anything they learn can only ever be done by themselves?

The assumption of Gonski is that the reason for Australia’s relative decline since 2000 is at least in part due to the holding back of some of our most able pupils through a slavish devotion to an uninspiring curriculum. The curriculum is indeed uninspiring, but it need not be this way.  Genuine subject engagement comes from depth understanding within that subject, and achieving a degree of mastery. If teachers were liberated from the focus on ‘general capabilities’ and we instead left free to teach the central tenets of their subjects, better learning and more joy would ensue. All good teachers offer a natural differentiation within each class, extending the brightest children and ensuring those that struggle end up knowing at least what they need to know. The key is to set the minimum bar high (what needs to be learned by all) and then to soar over that bar where possible. Curriculum should be liberating, not constricting, but a fragmented curriculum is merely chaotic.

Back to the modern religion: the worship of children. One has only to look at the mushrooming of T20 cricket and the family-marketed Big Bash in particular (and now the ludicrous #100balls), the juggernaut of Superhero films or Disney kids’ movies and the willingness of parents to acts as slaves to their children to note the direction society is taking. Gonski is a essentially a reactive report, produced as an echo to a culture where too many adults are afraid to play the role of an adult (possibly due to a subconscious fear of being labelled as a promoter of adultism?

Maybe we need to re-visit the line from A Game of Chess, in T S Eliot’s The Waste Land: ‘what you get married for if you don’t want children?‘, as spoken by the garrulous cockney in the pub.

Here’s the modern-day version: what you have children for if you don’t want to educate them?

In Affectionate Remembrance of Test Cricket

A year or two ago I watched the film ‘Death of a Gentleman’, about the parlous state of modern international cricket. At the time, I thought its case was overstated. Despite the creation of a wonderful pantomime villain in Giles Clarke, the film wasn’t the dramatic exposé it promised to be. The game needs to evolve, and T20 cricket, pink-ball day/night tests, four-day test matches, DRS and the overt dominance of the ‘big three’ test playing nations were an inevitability of the development of the sport and the market forces at work within. Or so I thought at the time.

I love test cricket because it is more than just a sport. It is a game with Laws rather than rules. The spirit of the game is as important as the result, and history and tradition transcend what is occurring on the field of play. Words and phrases like Bodyline and The Golden Age are woven into the fabric of cricket, and giants of the game like Bradman, Hobbs, Richards and Imran Khan straddle eras in which the brand of cricket played reflects the times. The dour austerity of 1950s or the carefree abandon of the early part of the Twentieth Century were each epitomised by the nature of the cricket being played.

Test cricket is a novel, and T20 is a pamphlet. T20 has no history and no culture to fall back on. The colours, mascots and walk-on music were designed in a meeting room by faceless executives. As a sport, you get exactly what it says on the tin. Bowlers possess more varieties than Heinz’s famed ‘57’ and batsmen try to plonk every ball into the crowd. There is no significant pressure associated with the format: bowlers accept they may be flogged on any given day, and a batsman might squirt a catch to cover point in the first over, but there’s always another chance tomorrow. In test cricket, pressure is what makes the game. There is pressure on the opening batsman who goes out on a pair in fading light, or the spin bowler tasked with skittling the opposition on a final day ‘bunsen’.

T20 mirrors modern living – quicker, louder, faster, with partial attention paid until something shinier comes along. T20 is disposable. Multiple players move between franchises in the off-season. The concepts of loyalty, building a career or genuine team spirit are anathema to T20, being less important than brash musical interludes, cheerleaders and placing KFC buckets on our heads. Kieron Pollard becomes a star only in this form of the game. We are no longer content to play the role of spectators, watching on the edge of our seats as the drama unfolds. We are now part of the action, actively involved from our armchairs or the stands. This is cricket as reality TV, where players are mic’d up on the field of play, cameramen on Segways chase incoming batsmen for close-up shots and members of the crowd don orange tabards for the chance to win thousands with a crowd catch.

The role and authority of the umpires has been eroded over time. If players don’t agree with decisions, they can have them overturned on replay, with garish neon screens proclaiming to everyone that the custodian of the game is wrong, undermined by the available technology. Where catches used to be claimed and the word of an opponent trusted, we now rely on endless and probably unreliable replays to tell us that the player is lying and the ball really did touch the turf. Umpires have had their horns sanded down, though thankfully not by a mixture of yellow tape and pitch-side dirt.

There are obvious parallels to be drawn with education, where teacher authority and the delivery of a communal academic curriculum plays second fiddle to student choice, engaging activities and personalised learning. We champion the quick and easy route to success (revision booklets and pre-test tests, drafted assignments and the Khan (though not Imran) Academy). We want immediate success and demonstration of ‘progress’ on a lesson by lesson basis rather than the slow and steady build-up of knowledge, skills and expertise. Raucous external stimuli have bred limited patience and if one thing doesn’t pique our interest, something else will be along in a moment. Two of the subjects that have been marginalised most in the curriculum (music and languages) are distinctly hierarchical rather than cumulative, and require dedication over years, perhaps decades, to master. We should relish this learning challenge, where the more we know, the more we realise lies unknown, where embracing both depth and breadth leads to complete immersion. Education is about means as well as ends, just as test cricket is about more than winning or losing.

CLR James, in his seminal text Beyond a Boundary, wrote ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know’. Today, we might ask what The KFC Buckethead Army care for the future of test cricket, but we probably already know the answer.

Educational Jenga

Over the last few months, a man has been building a house two doors down from our property. Almost single-handedly, one man has built a house. Every day of the week, from early until late, he has been on-site, building a house from scratch.

It has been interesting to watch, given that I have performed two major renovations in my adult life. One was when I put up a mirror in the dining room, and the other was when I painted the same room the following year. The former took me a few minutes but the latter task took four days. We had a small dining room, but using a roller about two inches in length (it looked more like a toothbrush) significantly lengthened the process.

Despite knowing little about solo house-building, the order in which the property has appeared seems logical. The site was levelled, the foundations developed, the house was built from the ground up, and we’ve now reached the external cladding stage. [I use the word cladding to make it sound like I know my terminology, but I’m willing to entertain the possibility I may be wrong].

It would be hard to justify another order in which the house could have been built – I might have offered some advice had I noticed the chap building a tiled roof on the freshly levelled earth, or attempting to hoist a piano into an as-yet unformed second floor. There are two areas of education currently en vogue that are analogous to this.

Jenga

Jenga is a bad way to build a house. As the house gets taller, it becomes ever more apparent that the foundations are shaky, many essential support materials are missing and eventually (and inevitably) the whole edifice collapses.

Project-based learning is educational Jenga. Instead of concentrating on building solid foundations through a common core curriculum, PBL follows the individual interests of children, assuming that essential knowledge and skills will be gathered along the way.

Individual pupils may become a relative expert on whatever niche real-life project they are following, but it is inevitable that certain gaps will be left. The longer this approach goes on, the more gaps will appear, until the gaps outnumber solid blocks of understanding. Of course, this is of less concern to people when it isn’t them required to pick up the pieces and rebuild.

Accoutrements

I do not believe it is possible to teach aspects of good character in an explicit manner, and certainly not independent of supporting ‘content’. I do think a key driver of Schools should be to develop people of excellent character, but it is best done through adherence to a rigorous academic curriculum, where desirable aspects such as resilience, grit, leadership, self-management, goal-setting etc are developed through what we teach. Without content, one is left with hypothetical situations and ‘what-ifs?’ Does anyone actually believe Donald Trump would wade into mass-shooting, even without a gun?

If we attempt to deliver/teach these desirable ‘extras’ separately from the core curriculum, we have moved beyond the teaching of knowledge and skills into more ephemeral areas. We should not be looking to build buttresses, turrets and carved gargoyles before the main house is complete. Even their necessity could be a matter for discussion. ‘Learning to learn’, for example, is an unhelpful phrase – you have either learned something, or you haven’t; this mythical skill is a phrase of extreme glibness.

Another problem with these accoutrements is the contradictory nature of them. Sacre-Coeur in Montmarte is built as a bizarre Romano-Byzantine structure, with some features detracting, and even clashing, with others. It is difficult to blend aspects of architecture that are incongruous and it is similar with education. Pushing the concept of grit and resilience in the absence of content is hard enough, but doing so whilst channelling a narrative of it’s ok to not be ok, linking high academic expectations with increased mental health concerns and focusing on the ‘culture of the self’ means a careful path needs to be trod to avoid giving messages clearly at odds with each other.

Our current house was built in 2014 and we’re moving to a more traditional, turn of the century, colonial town house. Maybe this is coincidence, but I think there’s an element of symbolism too.

 

Knowledge tests in Disguise

This title is from everyone’s favourite cognitive psychologist, Daniel Willingham. He does for quotable edu-soundbites what Oscar Wilde did for epigrams and witticisms.

The quote in full is: “reading tests are knowledge tests in disguise” and I first came across this line in E D Hirsch’s book Why Knowledge Matters, presented as an argument against the existence of a ‘main-idea finding’ skill. The point is that to derive genuine meaning from reading, one needs a canon of specific background knowledge, able to be accessed in order to present oneself as a good reader. When it comes to reading tests, children appear better readers when the topic they are reading about is familiar.

Perhaps this is unsurprising, and imagine the frustration one would feel reading a book where you did not possess the knowledge the writer had assumed. All text contains some assumed knowledge – it wouldn’t help the flow of a novel if the author needed to break from narrative to explain that Moscow is a city in Russia, or that a frigate is a warship.

[One of my own pet-hates is when characters are required to ‘talk the plot’ in books or films just to bring the reader/viewer on board. A good example of this was in the Eddie Redmayne vehicle The Theory of Everything, where Stephen Hawking’s room mate proclaims “but Stephen, you’re the finest physicist at Cambridge University”, just in case you thought he was gunning for a 2.2 in Business Management.]

Back to my main idea. We have introduced ‘tutor group reading’ this year at my School, and the list of titles across years 7 to 10 are below: Reading Wall.jpg

It is interesting to note where success has occurred. Several of the books have boys captivated, with The Giver, Maggot Moon and A Monster Calls being standout favourites. The language is simple in The Giver, and there’s very little background knowledge required to give context to the story. The story is told from the point of view of children, and without giving too much away, one needs to have an appreciation of colour, memory, pain, basic societal structures etc. It is safe to say that most children by the age of 13 will be familiar with these concepts without having been taught them explicitly. The language in A Fortunate Life is even simpler, but without some knowledge of Australian geography, the pioneer life in the early Twentieth Century and Australian involvement in World War I, a certain richness of the book is lost.

In Year 9, The Fight has presented the greatest challenge. I think I knew this would be the case. For those unfamiliar, it tells the story of The Rumble in the Jungle – Ali vs Foreman in Kinshasa in 1974. The book delves into some Bantu philosophy too, and I’d be surprised if any boy had come across the central tenets here. Putting this to one side, and having re-read the book recently, I made a list of the characters one needs to know before being able to glean depth understanding of what made the fight so important:

  1. Muhammad Ali
  2. George Foreman
  3. Joe Frazier
  4. Don King
  5. Ernest Hemingway
  6. Hunter S Thompson
  7. Patrice Lumumba
  8. Mobutu Sese Seko
  9. Joseph Conrad
  10. King Leopold II of Belgium

Without some knowledge of these people – who they were, what they did and why this is relevant – one is only able to read the book as a story of a heavyweight boxing contest at best. The book is reduced to an exercise in waiting for the fight to begin, and then seeing who gets knocked out. No deeper meaning is possible; enjoyment is limited and replaced with frustration, akin to listening to a person telling a story about a film you haven’t seen. There may be snippets of sense to grasp, but most of the time you feel like the only person in the conversation who doesn’t get the joke.

You might (not unfairly) ask why this text was chosen, given the likely frustration that would develop. I suppose I was keen to see if we could instil a sense of curiosity amongst the boys – the exotic names of places such as Kinshasa or Nsele, the rhythmic and aggressive language of Ali, the names of former vanquished heavyweights. Even if one needs to halt the story every few pages, the opportunity to veer off down less-trodden paths (Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now being fairly obvious diversions) is one to be embraced. Knowledge begets knowledge, and every new character or situation can be a springboard from which to dive into a different world. Whether this happens will become apparent in time, but presenting something that all boys will relish suggests we are pandering to pre-developed interests. A more ambitious (if higher risk approach) will mean that some need to pedal quite hard to keep up, but the views will be all the more spectacular once the summit is reached.

Australian Edu-Facebook

Since moving to Australia almost two years ago, I have been made to feel welcome. With an Ashes series starting this week, I reserve the right to change my mind, but it’s been an easy transition thus far. The social hierarchy and class structure is less pronounced than in the UK, though I’m pleased to note the obsession with where you went to School remains, at least in South Australia. People are easy-going, and the word ‘banter’ has yet to be corrupted as it has been in the UK. Some semblance of wit still remains.

It seems quite difficult to genuinely offend an Australian – that is, until one enters the world of education.

Education is complicated. There are relatively few absolute truths, it is difficult to say with certainty ‘what works’, and even the purpose of education is up for debate. Is it to provide skilled individuals for an uncertain future workforce, to create a community of cultured intellectuals, a bit of both or something different entirely? I think everyone who works in education should find it interesting to debate these ideas. I’d be surprised if anyone wasn’t interested in these ideas, given that we have all been to School, and must have some opinion on what education is for, and what constitutes a successful education.

Twitter is an excellent forum for education debate, and by this I refer to pre-planned debates such as happen on the #AussieEd hashtag. It allows people from different backgrounds and timezones to come together, make their points, support the views of strangers and challenge the views of colleagues. This all happens in a space where hierarchy is removed, where no single ‘voice’ can dominate. Ideas are promoted, and people are free to agree or disagree with these ideas. Ideas do not have feelings, and we should all be happy for our ideas to be challenged. We should be willing to defend our ideology, willing to take on board the wisdom of others, and willing to change our mind. If conflict is the problem, education is usually the answer, and by discussing ideas in education, we become more educated and hence more effective educators. I am grateful to those people who act as administrators for pre-arranged conversations to take place; these specifically arranged discussion topics help to keep the conversation on track. It also provides a space where it is natural to interact with strangers, those who see things from a different perspective and who might learn from you, as you may do from them.

It can be unnerving for a stranger to appear from the ether and take you to task over something you have posted, but if you post in a public forum (which is what I think Twitter should be), it is reasonable to receive comment or challenge.

But it doesn’t tend to happen like this. Australian education on Twitter seems to think it is Australian education on Facebook/Instagram. I know I shouldn’t tell people how to use social media, but the platforms (in general) serve a very different purpose. Facebook is about friends, likes and platitudes. A photo is posted; it garners likes from your friends, who write ‘awww’ or ‘so cute’ or ‘looking beautiful, lovely’. Everyone wins. This isn’t a debate, or a challenging of ideas. People don’t post critical comments under photos of babies. No-one expects their choice of Sharm as a holiday destination to be questioned. The etiquette of Facebook gives rise to a cycle of likes, shares and phatic commentary.

Australian edu-Twitter has a Facebook mentality; a mentality that say if I post a statement, I expect likes and platitudes. Here’s a statement:

 

And here’s another statement:

Maybe you agree with the statements and maybe you don’t. But when similar statements are made as part of an organised discussion on education, it should be possible to challenge those statements in a reasonable manner, rather than simply re-tweeting with a comment ‘This’.

Twitter is not Facebook. If you don’t want ideas you hold dear to be criticised, you are probably better off posting them on Facebook, preferably with a photo of your young family enjoying a holiday sunset. You can then gather all the ‘awww’s you like, without every being required to reflect on your position.

The *new* three ‘R’s?

Richard Dawkins (science writer and Muslim-baiter) is an old boy of Oundle School in the UK. I taught at Oundle for almost ten years, in two stints, and had the pleasure of meeting Mr Dawkins, even dining with him on one occasion. He was rather stiff company, difficult to draw on any topic of conversation and generally gave the impression that he’d rather be somewhere else, which was probably exactly the impression he wished to convey.
Dawkins is credited with having coined the neologism ‘meme’, and if you spend much time on edu-Twitter, you’ll find a lot of memes. Some popular edu-folk seem to communicate almost entirely in memes. Justin Tarte is a good example, Adrian Scarlett another. Their pithy, single-line posts of truthiness, often emblazoned slogan-like on a 1980s Athena poster-style background, tend to be popular with a certain type of Twitter user: people who engage the retweet button more readily than the brain.
These posts focus on things like how Schools in 2017 look a bit like Schools in 1917, the killer observation that prisons have a ‘uniform’ (and so do Schools) and even that graves are laid out in rows and so are some classrooms. These points are made to suggest that the obvious modernisation of hospitals, industry etc, has not been mirrored in Schools, which still rely on a method of instruction (teacher educating the class) that is so very 20th Century.
The arrow of time is fixed, and as such, technological, industrial and scientific progress develops apace, and this is broadly a good thing. It has also caused global climate change and has developed nuclear weapons, but it is up to society to determine how this is managed. We are a progressive species and it is unnatural to stall progress.
Education is different, however, due to the annoying habit of the human race to refresh itself in complete ignorance. Babies are pretty thick, and need to be educated from scratch, even babies born into 21st Century learning. Technological or medical progress is not necessarily linear, but it doesn’t have a reset button, unlike education. There is always a new Reception class, always a new Year 7 cohort and always a fresh set of young adults moving into Year 11 – the triumphs and disasters of the previous year are rarely relevant to the new class coming through. Advances in technology and wider access to information (which is still what some people think will revolutionise education) do not give us the right to bypass the basics – the Three ‘R’s – that have proved fundamental to the education of human beings since time immemorial. We should be careful not to try and build taller buildings on more shaky foundations.
There is evidence to suggest education in Schools has stalled. Flatlining NAPLAN scores and the first decease in the percentage of top grades at GCSE for about 30 years are just two examples. Despite the fact our children don’t seem to be getting any cleverer, we are still advancing the bleeding edge of technology. How to explain this paradox? Maybe, as Matt Ridley points out, we’ve reached a point where we can build things as a species that no one individual is able to create, and thus we’ve advanced further than our individual abilities due to the power of widespread collaboration? Put simply, everyone knows a bit, and these bits together make quite an impressive whole. Or maybe the people responsible for these advances were educated not by their own random exploration of the internet, but with a focus on core academic disciplines from a young age. It’s conjecture, but I suspect the lack of improvement in education is a direct result of moving away from a more traditional form of education, whereas use the same evidence to justify a move away from just such a model.
Perhaps we’re regressing as a species? Perhaps these days we’re all about memes and selfies and reality TV and no-platforming those we disagree with rather than entering into informed debate. Maybe we just got bored of educating each new generation in the important Three ‘R’s of Reading, w(R)iting and (a)Rithmetic? I agree with Hirsch: if you could measure just one thing upon which to judge the success of Schooling, it would be the reading ability of a School leaver. Reading at a high level allows us to gather knowledge, make connections and communicate better ourselves.
I suggest we re-embrace the Old Three ‘R’s and raise serious questions over the New Three ‘R’s. These New (unofficial) R’s’: Risk-taking, Resilience and (Ken) Robinson might make for better soundbites and memes, but they are more likely to take us back to the dark ages than into a more enlightened, educated future.
Risk-taking? The modern risk-taker sees inanimate statues as a foe worth battling.
Resilience? Modern resilience seeks to diagnose 1/4 of young girls with depression and promotes the removal of tackling from the game of rugby.
Robinson? Dance your way to success in Mathematics.
When Tasmania first broke away from mainland Australia, around 12000 years ago, the population was too small to collaborate successfully and thus advance, and the people therefore actually experienced regression. Surely something similar can’t happen in 2017?