Insert creative title here

I read through the feed from Tom Barrett’s #creativitychat recently. It made for an interesting yet frustrating e-conversation. Maybe the whole concept of creativity is tough to define in practice, that is in the real world rather than the dictionary, but most of the attempts to nail it down gave the impression of people wrestling metaphorically with a bar of soap in the bath. Creativity is always near the top of the pile when it comes to those interminable lists of ‘what employers want’ or ‘what skills are most important for the future’, which is odd when people seem to find it difficult to explain what is means, let alone how one might go about developing it. 

Despite being hard to define, we can usually fall back to the line that ‘you know it when you see it’. It is therefore relatively easy to give examples, either of creative people or creative works. We can isolate these in what are generally (and I think unhelpfully) termed the creative suite of subjects, that is Music, Drama, Film and Art. Think Bowie, Picasso, Un Chien Andalou, The Garden of Earthly Delights etc.

Except that’s not really true at the moment. TV feeds us a yearly cycle of derivative, formulaic visual wallpaper (Strictly, Bake-Off, I’m a Celebrity, Survivor; film is dominated by franchises, re-makes and adaptations; music relies on nostalgia and covers; the YBAs, Banksy, the Chapman brothers and Grayson Perry feel about as fresh and edgy as a tomato that’s been in the fridge for a month, but who is set to replace them?

Just at the time where creativity is seen as being so important, we seem to be struggling for inspiration. Technological advancement aside (given that we expect all civilisations will move forward in this respect over time), where are the ‘original idea that have value’ (to quote Sir Ken) in the traditional areas where creativity has flourished? Why are we stuck in such a rut and happy to be fed a diet of Paul Hollywood, Ant and Dec, Michael Bay and Justin Bieber? It is perhaps not too much of an over-statement to suggest that empires tend to collapse when they no longer develop, progress and create. Let’s not wait too long to unearth the next incarnation of genuine creative talen.

Even if we still don’t really know what it means, I’m sure we’ll know it when we see it.

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Never mind the b******s

Albert Einstein may be the most misquoted person in history, with Lincoln and Yeats not far behind.  In the spirit of mis-quotation, the never-spoken words of Teddy Roosevelt were that ‘complaining about a problem without proposing a solution is called whining’.  Had Roosevelt uttered this line, he may well have been talking about my previous blog post, in which I provided a polemic on how not to interview.  Upon reflecting that I had offered nothing which might be termed decent advice, this follow-up provides some pointers on how to impress at interview.  One must be cautious that all advice can only be a product of the man who gives it (Hunter S Thompson said that, by the way), so you should feel free to disregard and/or disagree with it all.  Just be aware that you probably shouldn’t be too disappointed if you aren’t successful with an application to Prince Alfred College in Adelaide.

Don’t write a long letter 

It was clear when receiving applications from teachers at Winchester College in the UK that there was a particular ‘Winchester style’ of letter, namely one which was short (think Christmas card from your local takeaway-length) and clearly designed to convey that teaching at Winchester was enough to be short-listed for any job that happened to be going (which to be fair, it probably was).  I remember watching Darren Maddy bat for England some time in the early 2000s and the longer he remained at the crease, the more palpably obvious it became that he was not international class.  Had he nicked off from ball 1, we might not have known this.  If you’re writing an 8 page letter, there’s a good chance you’re also going to end up on the scrap-heap with Darren.  One page, absolute maximum two, please.

Don’t have a long CV 

The longest CVs I see are from those who have the smallest amount of relevant experience.  Playing lead guitar for Brian Ferry’s support act in 1987 or working at your union bar will not enhance your application for any teaching job.  I worked at my College bar once or twice and all it taught me that was that it was possible to be ‘paid’ in scampi fries and fake coke made from bar syrup.

Make your letter genuinely personal

Education is too complicated for there to be wholesale agreement over ‘what works’.  Equally successful teachers can have diametrically opposed views on the purpose of education and how best to go about educating children.  Maybe you think that education exists to solve the problems of the C21, maybe you think it’s all about social mobility or maybe you just love your subject so much that you want everyone else to gain the pleasure you do from it.  Whatever the case, don’t try to find the ‘right’ answers, or the answers that you think the interviewer wants.  Be honest, be yourself and be prepared to justify and defend your position.

Do some research

Putting together an application is an arduous process, but learning a bit about the School you’re applying to can give you an advantage.  If they teach Cambridge Pre-U, or IB or other lesser-known courses, it’s a good idea to know this.  You don’t need to have experience of these courses yourself, but to know they are offered and to express interest is a good sign.  Try to pick a few things from the website that (genuinely) match your interests to show what a good fit you might be.  Co-curricular activities are unlikely to be the main deal-breaker for an appointment, but they can certainly help to differentiate between candidates.  If the School has a flourishing bee-keeping society and you are a keen apiarist, this just might be the cigarette paper to be wedged between you and a similar candidate.

Teach the best lesson ever 

Everyone should teach a lesson on interview.  There’s always going to be an element of artificiality about the lesson, but any observer will be looking for pace, purpose, rapport and whether the kids actually learned something, not that you managed to perform the party trick of learning all the pupils’ names within the first five minutes.  If you have a show lesson, make sure you use it now.  It doesn’t matter if it feels a bit false, but if you can’t pull out all the stops on interview, when can you?  No-one is going to be critical of a teacher who came in brilliantly prepared and taught a lesson for the ages.

But…don’t rely on IT or practical demonstrations

This is just a bit too high risk.  The School wifi might just be less reliable than you’re used to and spending anguished minutes waiting for your YouTube clip to load up teaches you that time really can expand.  You can of course use this to your advantage if you have a wonderful Plan B up your sleeve, but make it look like you didn’t and were simply able to roll with the punches.  Practical demonstrations can enliven a lesson, but I have been wary ever since a former colleague managed to throw blue copper sulfate solution all over himself during the first lesson of the day whilst on interview.  With the rest of the day still to come, it didn’t make for a comfortable time when every first question in subsequent interviews was along the lines of ‘why have you got blue stuff all over your shirt’?

Prepare, but don’t over-prepare

‘How do you judge your success as a teacher?’

‘Tell me about a really good lesson you taught recently’.

‘If you could teach any book/topic/area of personal interest, what would it be?

These (I think) are pretty standard interview questions, and yet they are probably the three worst-answered.  You will never be able to second guess all questions, but having thought about what *might* be asked will give you more time to think about the questions that are genuinely from left-field.  The third question from the above list is always the most telling, as it tends to separate the teachers who simply plod through the syllabus year on year from the teachers who have a genuine interest in the subject they teach.

You don’t need to ask questions

Interviewers will probably give you this opportunity, but having no questions is certainly better than having a stupid question.  ‘How does the School day work?’ is generally the most banal question for the sake of asking a question.  The answer, by the way, is that you come in, teach, and then go home.

Don’t do something mental

I’ve never liked the idea that lunch on interview is some kind of ‘test’.  I do expect that people will know to move inwards where cutlery is concerned and which one is the fish-fork, but I think it’s more important that interviewees can teach.  I once interviewed a candidate for a chemistry post who, upon realising at lunch that there were no more water glasses available, decided to drink out of the large fluted vase in the middle of the table.  I’m not sure what caused this aberration, but the sight of a man drinking what appeared to be a yard glass of water made the rest of us feel rather uncomfortable.  He was not successful with his application.  I wonder if he regretted this, or even felt it was an unusual thing to do; I think about him quite a lot.

Remember that it’s a two way process

‘I don’t care to belong to any club that would have me as a member’ said Groucho Marx, and it’s true that you should be aware of what School you will suit as well as what School suits you.  Be aware of your own value and expect that the School will want you as much as you want them.

Calling out the BS

Interview season is upon us. Appointing the best teachers is the most important part of my job. Actually, appointing the best talent and then committing to the development of that talent is the most important part of the job. No School can rise above the quality of its Common Room; the history, buildings and facilities at the School will always be secondary to the individuals who teach there.

When I left my last School, the Governors kindly offered me the chance to write a self-congratulatory piece, detailing what I felt I had achieved during my 6 and a bit years in post. Some degree of modesty kicked in and I decided to write one side on things I felt had been great successes and a second side on resounding failures I had presided over. I don’t think the quality of the ideas, the approach taken to planning and implementation or even whether these initiatives were needed by the School were particularly important factors in how things turned out. The only thing the successes had in common is that the people charged with carrying things out were talented souls with plenty of initiative. When things didn’t turn out so well, the opposite was usually true. This is a bit of an over-simplification, but a combination of ordinary ideas and excellent people is probably better than the other way round.

Back to the interviews. The process of appointing teachers is always likely to be flawed, all the way from the short-listing to the completion of the interview day. The person on paper is not always the same as the one who walks through the door, and I wonder how many potentially excellent colleagues never even made it to the interview stage. All prospective teachers teach a lesson on interview, but they all teach different pupils at different times of the day and there have been enough diametrically opposing opinions following the formal interviews to make me wonder if we had met the same people. I think people tend to favour interviewees who remind them of themselves and this is a perhaps a reason for the divergent opinions.

It is always important to prepare for an interview, but some interviewees are over-reliant on fashionable edu-soundbites. The trouble with these soundbites is that whereas they may capture the educational zeitgeist momentarily, there’s often not much under the surface once the mm-thin patina has been scratched away. Here’s a (not comprehensive) list of current phrases that arouse suspicion and often lead to ‘follow-up question’ disappointment.

1. Life-long learner

There is nothing wrong with this phrase, so long as you can back it up. How do you maintain regular engagement with your subject? What relevant literature have you read recently? What is your particular area of expertise?

2. Learning journey with my students

This is not a good phrase. I don’t think any teacher with sound subject knowledge should ever be learning stuff alongside their pupils.

3. Teaching philosophy statement

These are a bit like School mission statements. They tend to be a bit bland, all say the same thing and be too generalised to be useful.

4. Individual learning styles

They don’t exist, so best not to mention that you always teach to the individual’s preferred style. Even if they did exist, it would be impossible.

5. Engaged students

The phrase ‘student engagement’ is used a lot. A whole lot. The problem is that it is quite vague, and just because they are engaged it doesn’t actually mean that effective learning is taking place. Lots of people seem to think that engagement will lead to learning. I believe that it happens the other way round.

6. ‘Teaching is all about relationships’

Relationships are important whenever humans communicate but teaching is not all about anything. It’s rather more complicated than that.

7. Emotional, social, psychological, well-being needs of my students

Claims that all lessons take into account some or all of the above is not something I buy.

8. Odd teaching quirks

Maybe a commitment to ‘melody learning’ is your new thing, but you need to take the gamble that this will make you sound innovative, and not like a crackpot.

9. Writing things in the third person about yourself

This is really odd. We are not amused.

10. Chinese proverbs, typos, font crimes (including comic sans)

None of these are quite as bad as finding a quote from education luminary Michael J Fox (as I did last week), but any of the above mean that it’s a no from me.

GifTEDed

If I include my PGCE as part of my teaching career, I’ve just moved into my 20th year in teaching. My teacher training is memorable only for excruciating lectures on the 1944 Education Act, a total inability on my part to make any children be quiet and listen to me and thrice weekly doner kebab lunches from KBC kebabs on St Andrew’s street in Cambridge (an experience which caused me to put on about 25lbs in a few months, which I suppose might have been a subconscious plan to make myself more physically imposing and hence intimidating in the classroom).

The two most enjoyable things during these twin decades have probably been cricket coaching and Trivium teaching. I have many happy memories of the former – trips back on the coach having negotiated just the right amount of beer post-match to be able to make it back to base in comfort; facial skin like scrunched tracing paper after a blazing sunny afternoon and a win secured late in the day even after choosing not to trigger the opposition opener who looked like he might win the game on his own. 

The latter joy (Trivium) is an internally designed and taught course, developed with the assistance of many colleagues at my previous School. The basic idea is that every pupil is taught an ‘extra’ subject during their first year at the School, without constraints of syllabus or examination. This Trivium course simply needs to be founded in intellectual and cultural content, ideally with some coherent theme(s) running through it, and should introduce pupils to ‘best that has been thought and said’ (a phrase which three years ago sounded dramatic, but now feels a bit hackneyed, so apologies for that).

Introducing boys and girls to Arendt, Hopper, Kafka, Fitzgerald, Yeats, Grant Wood, Eliot, Chinua Achebe, Picasso, Britten and Conrad was a wonderfully liberating experience. I was never quite sure what was going to resonate and some things I thought were nailed on ‘winners’ fell rather flat whilst other things from left-field ended up being far more successful, but I never felt that it was anything other than educational time well-spent. Introducing children to wonderful art, literature and ideas can never be anything other than time well-spent and even those sessions where all I got was blank expressions still felt to me like I was sowing seeds for the future, in the knowledge (hope) that they would germinate some time hence.

One of the most important things for me was that all pupils were a part of this course. A key problem with identifying ‘gifted’ children is that once identified, it’s impossible to remove that label/stigma. On the understanding that academic progress is rarely linear, there is always likely to be mistakes made around the ‘join’, where the least able ‘gifted’ kid is likely to be less developed academically than the most able ‘non-gifted’ kid in a couple of years. Like Zeno’s ‘bald man’ paradox, it is impossible to say when not-gifted flips into gifted, so why do it? In any case, despite the fact it was generally the case that Trivium was more enjoyable to teach in the Scholarship classes – they tended to take the ideas and run and their work was more self-extending – it was also apparent that many of the potentially very impressive academics were held back by their own (or their parents’) rather boring view of education as simply a means to an end. Interesting views and questions are not exclusive to the most cognitively developed.

I was proud that we developed an inclusive and diverse course, choosing not to patronise pupils by trying to find cheap wins with ‘engaging’ and ‘relevant’ content. Education is full of the terms ‘raised standards’ and ‘high expectations’ but this was a concrete example of what those terms mean. We didn’t just talk about it, we did it.

I’m now looking to build a similar model at my new School, and I’m very pleased to have secured the services of several excellent teachers to help develop a programme of academic enrichment. We will start with the brightest and most intellectually curious boys, but the long-term plan is to develop an extension ‘curriculum’ for all. I sense it will require a little time, because what I am proposing goes against the most common model of ‘gifted education’ in Australia.

As well as being the most enjoyable teaching I have done in 20 years, planning my Trivium course was a lot of work, and I expect this was the case for every teacher involved. With no set syllabus, every individual course needed to be developed from scratch. I expect there was a real fringe benefit of improving the quality of teachers, given that they needed to re-engage with the learning process themselves. Reading, sharing thoughts, committing a fair portion of one’s holiday to the collation of material and ideas: all of this led to an advancement in the intellectual discourse in the common room.

The alternative model of gifted education has none of these fringe benefits. The prevailing orthodoxy involves the identification of children with high cognitive ability, who are then hived off into special classes (sometimes with more than one year group put together). These classes have twin foci: nurturing the pupils’ interests and providing daily ‘challenge’. Notwithstanding the fact that every pupil should be challenged every day (and for some the challenge can be organisational, behavioural or rooted in academic maturity), the approach of allowing these children to simply learn more in a self-directed manner about those things in which they already have an interest seems to relegate the teacher to a mere bystander, or at best an occasional encourager. 

If I’d been exposed to this approach, perhaps all I’d be interested in now would be the Roman Empire and the ships of the Royal Navy. Children require expert teachers (and parents) to introduce them to things they are unlikely to discover in the usual scheme of things. Children require knowledge to be made coherent, to be scaffolded and to have context explained. The real experts in ‘gifted ed’ should be hugely knowledgable themselves, though able to allow the pupils to make connections themselves where appropriate. Otherwise, we’re simply accompanying pupils on their ‘learning journey’, which doesn’t sound much like teaching, any more than is sticking on a TED talk.