Progressive Education and Political Culture

This is causing some consternation in certain spheres. Good.

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Faking It?

I completed my PGCE at Cambridge in 1998. My affable supervisor, a Dave Allan lookalike called John Raffan, gave all those passing the course a small gift. The course wasn’t a tough one to pass, but a chap in his mid-40s named Colin did manage to fail. He didn’t do any of the assignments, which may have played a part, but his decision to put an ice-cube down the back of one of his female pupils at a parents’ evening may have been terminal to his chance of success.

Anyway, John’s gifts were a nice touch from a lovely man, and the book he gave me (Bluff Your Way in Teaching) still has pride of place on the bookshelf in my office. It didn’t take him long to work me out, and he would be pleased to know that I have been bluffing my way in teaching ever since.

All teaching has an element of bluff. For example, our authority is pretty much all bluff. Pupils do what they are told due to a combination of respect for the person issuing the command, a sense that the request is made for their own greater good and their genuine fear of sanctions. Sanctions are also bluff, however: we can’t actually force pupils to do a sanction and therefore even punishment has an element of compliance. Pupils need to buy in to the concept of authority for authority to be meaningful – the authority is therefore not real, relying on a construct implicitly agreed by both parties.

A synonym for bluff is ‘fake’. A fake teacher is one who looks and sounds like a teacher, but is really a fake, an imitation. Fake teachers are ones who don’t really know what they are talking about. They fake a knowledge of the subject matter because they are inexpert in what they are delivering. I have taught Chemistry for my whole career, but I have also dipped into Physics, Biology, Geology and English. I felt like a fake delivering each of these, and God knows how I would have felt had I taken on Computing as was requested in the dim and distant past. I have an A level in Physics and 40% of the first year of my undergraduate degree was Mathematics, but I still feel like I’m faking it when I teach aspects of these subjects.

I don’t doubt that I am a better mathematician than the junior pupils I teach, but that is not enough. I shouldn’t be happy to be a few pages ahead of these boys in the textbook, nor have to scrub up on my understanding of a topic before teaching it. We shouldn’t ever be ‘learning together’. Spending time pondering the best way to communicate the subject is necessary, but spending time making sure I can answer off-topic questions that come my way is not. I should be able to answer pretty much any question that is thrown at me, and if it is interesting and worthwhile, I should have the confidence, knowledge and expertise to take the lesson in a tangential but beneficial direction.

Faking a deeper knowledge of a subject than you possess, even unintentionally, is not acceptable. Delivering a course that cannot be expanded upon and cannot be developed is likely to lead to formulaic and uninspiring teaching. Schools should commit to finding subject experts to teach within their specialism at all levels.

A significant problem arises when Schools are unable to appoint subject specialists to teaching roles. When I taught in the UK, we used to mine the ‘fresh from university’ talent pool, asking for expressions of interest in teaching fellowships from the dozen or so top university departments for individual subjects. Australia, however, has a twin problem. First, teachers must have a teaching qualification, which is a significant hindrance (at least in the sense of recruiting some of the brightest and best) and secondly the status of the teaching profession is so low that often one needs to dig down to ATAR scores far lower than one might wish just to get a ‘body in a classroom’.

Anthony Seldon used to talk about appointing genuine subject experts, irrespective of teaching experience, claiming they would learn the ‘craft of the classroom’ whilst on the job. This strategy has an element of risk associated, but he is right in the sense that it it far easier to train someone in the delivery of pre-learned subject matter than it is to educate them in that subject matter in the first place.

So how do these inexpert teachers manage to get by? How are they able to fake it every day? In part, it is due to the blurring of the purpose of education. The main purpose of education at School is for pupils to learn, to develop knowledge and to become cleverer as a result. This requires genuine expertise from the teachers in the material they are delivering. When this is not the case, we may end up falling back on pos-ed, mindfulness, NLP and learning styles, techniques of engagement, character ed, study skills and memory gimmicks, growth mindset, grit and increased wellbeing as a key factor in academic success.

None of these require subject expertise and tend to be promoted by those who do not prioritise the teaching of subjects and the purpose of education to increase knowledge, develop understanding and to make children cleverer. They are also often quite vague in their delivery, outcomes and direct purpose. If academic outcomes are to be improved, I would argue that to improve the expertise of the teacher is more likely to be effective than trying to get the ‘critical positive ratio’ nearer to the magic figure of 2.9013?

Pretty. Damn. Certain.

It is a line that will live with Michael Gove for a very long time. Along with the phrase ‘enemies of promise’ (I didn’t mind that one, actually), his utterance that “people in this country have had enough of experts…” will be played, replayed and brought up regularly when the hindsight enabled story of the political mess that is Britain in 2016 is told. Johnson’s hijacking, Leadsom’s mothering, Crabb’s sexting, the lesser of two Eagles and Corbyn grimly holding to office like some greyed limpit fastened to the side of a quickly sinking vessel: that’s just the last couple of weeks. It is hard not to be depressed by the mess, whether you’re an ardent remainer or a committed leaver.

Gove’s role has been the greatest personal disappointment because I felt he was a politician of ambition (and not just for himself), talent and integrity. I thought he did a fine job as education secretary, displaying clear purpose, vision and a belief in the transformative power of education. He was not the man to lower intellectual expectations as a result of limited economic means; instead he understood that economic capital and cultural capital are two different things and that one can provide a far better future for one’s children by becoming a fully educated member of society.

His quote about experts was ill-judged, and when watching the clip back, I noted that he seems to pause for a moment to comprehend the silliness of what he has just said. However, as is the way with politicians, there was no instant retraction, just a continuation down the path of absolute certainty. Andrea Leadsom’s recent comments to The Times about motherhood is a similar case. Why can these people not just admit they have said something foolish in error and move on? After all, to err is human; to forgive, divine.

We all speak a few thousand words each day. It was be surprising in the extreme if at least some of these weren’t ill-judged, formed factually incorrect sentences or simply failed to make the point we wished to convey.

President Obama, the greatest orator of our time, says here ( https://youtu.be/UjGUUGw0pQ8 ) that “it’s not cool to not know what you’re talking about…”

But how often do we ever really know what we’re talking about? Who really understood what the effect of Brexit would be on the economy, or on the national mood? How should we best address global terrorism, the rising population or the possibility of disease pandemics? We do need experts, of course, and that is why democracy should never involve giving complex decision making over to the public, especially when such a nuanced issue can be couched as such a simple in/out decision, thus setting up a classic false dilemma.

We live in a time of bombastic certainty – Iraq was all about the oil; Blair went to war simply to cosy up to the US; you only care about the future if you are a mother; let’s take back control; immigration keeps our country going; immigration is an uncontrolled shambles; the England football team lost because they didn’t have enough passion, or were overpaid, or were at the end of a long season, or we’re not technical enough, or it was the tactics, or the selection, or the injuries. There is probably a kernel of truth in all these statements, but the status updates and 140 character assertions are over-simplifications at best. To express a state of uncertainty or confusion on any issue is seen as a weakness to be pounced on by the Internet masses, so we are forced to abandon the tentative in favour of the assured, like someone stamping for all they are worth on a frozen lake. The problem being that we have no idea how thick the ice is. We can only hope it is as thick as most of the people keen to be part of the debate.

The purpose of argument and debate is to persuade, but one should also be willing to be persuaded. Social media is a poor forum for debate, given that we can never be sure who the audience is; no-one wants to look foolish in front of both their peers *and* total strangers. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone concede an inch on Twitter, with the ‘agree to disagree’ line usually confirming a draw. More often, bold opposing statements are uttered, positions are confirmed and a stand-off is created, until such point as both protagonists become bored and search for videos of cats instead.

Arguments are not about winning and losing so much as accepting, clarifying and understanding. True certainty is far more rare than we seem to think, and living with a degree of uncertainty in all that we do is a more realistic way to behave and might even allow us to enjoy ourselves a little more, rather than seeking out the next stranger to pick an e-fight with.

I am, of course, willing to accept that I might be wrong about this.