Michael Hall

In his excellent book Letters from School, John Rae devotes one chapter to the retirement of a legendary schoolmaster. If you teach at those sort of schools, you know exactly the sort of person he describes. These individuals are academic, charismatic and resolutely anti-establishment. They tend to be popular with pupils, but not always for the right reasons. I may be misquoting, but at the retirement dinner for this schoolmaster, Rae is indirectly criticised for being the ‘mediocrity’ that ‘fails to recognise genius’.

I used to walk past the bust of Frank McEachran each day when I taught at Shrewsbury School. McEachran (or ‘Kek’ to all those that knew him) taught English at the School for 40 years and was Alan Bennett’s inspiration for the character of Hector in The History Boys. I have a copy of McEachran’s book Spells, which I recommend strongly to any teacher who believes education must be about more than the bare bones of the syllabus.

Shrewsbury School is geographically isolated (as far as this is possible in the UK); it was almost a two hour journey to play our ‘local’ rivals at Malvern College. This isolation, coupled with the historic nature of the establishment and the fact that (until recently) it was one of only five boys’ only boarding schools in the country, meant that it had its fair share of legendary and colourful bachelors. These gentlemen are a dying breed – the sort of folk who give their life to a school and exist almost exclusively within its four walls.

I never taught alongside (Frederick) Michael Hall, as he retired soon before I arrived at Shrewsbury in 2004. He occupied the post of Head of Mathematics for almost 30 years and was (by all accounts) an eccentric individual and a brilliant teacher. He never married and must have given a huge amount of his time and life to the school. Working at a full boarding school is at best a ‘six days a week’ job, and Michael Hall did not limit his commitment to term time. He taught at a time when no-one would have known what a multiple-page risk assessment was and, as such, the expeditions he led in the school holidays are very much from a bygone age.

During my five years at the School, I taught with some of the wisest and interesting elder statesmen in the common room, many of whom were ‘termites’ – that is, they had taught at the School for at least one hundred terms. These were the sort of men to carefully pronounce both ‘t’s in the phrase ‘last term’. But I also wished I had met Frank McEachran and Michael Hall, because they each seemed to be the epitome of the legendary schoolmaster (without being the awkward characters described by Rae). McEachran died in 1975, so I missed him by quite a time (I wasn’t even born at that point) but I missed Michael Hall by only a couple of years. When he died in 2005, there was a mixture of sadness, reminiscence and gossiping. I don’t think he had found retirement straightforward, and this is common for men who tangle up so much of their life in that of the school and the boys.

There was great excitement at the School with the news that Michael Hall’s wine cellar had been donated to all the current members of the Common Room. He was an oenophile of great repute and word had it that the cellar was stocked with rare gems. The local wine merchants were engaged to itemise the contents of the cellar and then to assign approximate value to each bottle, in order that the amount available to each teacher could be calculated. Teachers were then free to pick the bottles they wanted up to that value. But it turned out that reports of a fine wine cellar had been greatly exaggerated. The collection was more meagre in quality and quantity than anyone had expected. Some of the wine merchant’s notes went as far as describing certain bottles as ‘undrinkable’, which caused great mirth given these had been gifts from current members of staff. I was pleased with my single bottle of Chateau Leoville-Barton ’96, but this was an oasis in a wine desert, and was infinitely better than the plonk hoovered up by my disappointed (or undiscerning) colleagues.

By 2005, none of the boys at the School would have remembered Michael Hall. Most of the teachers did not remember the person either, so it was sad that the explosion of the myth that was the great wine collection was the last time he was remembered and discussed by a large number of people. Maybe it’s a good thing that giving one’s life to a school is neither expected, nor lauded these days. We never know how we’re going to be remembered when we are gone, and having a positive impact whilst we are able should be enough for us.

The real winners

Whenever there is a winner, there also tends to be a loser. The loser garners fewer votes, scores fewer goals or gets punched to the canvas, unconscious. Often (at the All England Club, for example), the presence of one winner requires there to be many losers; this makes the individual wearing the crown more praiseworthy.

In education, there are winners and losers too. When it comes to academic competition, a ‘prizes for all’ mentality should be avoided, given that it tends to reward mediocrity in the same breath as excellence. I am certainly in favour of considering the relative capacity of the individuals in question when awarding prizes, but it’s always good if this can be backed up by hard data rather than ‘feel’.

One area where all educators can be winners is in the sphere of professional learning. This is where we can all improve – to be better, because everyone can be better. We need to refine our practice where we are already good, re-focus our efforts where we are inefficient and change what we do when our approach is ineffectual.

It is the goal of professional learning to improve teaching. But this requires two things. Firstly, there needs to be quality control over what is being presented; secondly, those on the receiving end need to be open to that information. This does not mean they need to swallow it, unquestioning, word for word. But once we have translated how the theory can be applied in our classroom context, we should be willing to adapt our practice.

The quality control aspect is not perfect. I have spoken at conferences in the UK, and also in Australia (Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide) and New Zealand. It has been rare for my presentation to be scrutinised to ensure it’s backed up by evidence (though I think it was in each case). If professional learning becomes dominated (maybe it is already?) by people pushing nothing but opinion and personal anecdote, we are in trouble. I was a bit cheeky at one conference, and spoke for my entire presentation on why the thrust of the conference (on differentiated learning) was wrong. This didn’t make me very popular, but in my defence, I wasn’t told that I had to support the premise. If I’d known I was going to be on a panel with three other educators about whose presentations I had expressed serious doubts, maybe I’d have been more reserved. And maybe I wouldn’t.

The professional learning industry, where Australian teachers have a mandated number of hours to keep up their teacher registration, is always going to have a fair amount of filler, but there’s plenty of good stuff to go around too, and it’s getting better. I am more concerned about the unwillingness of so many teachers to engage with ideas that challenge their own ingrained practice. I don’t like attending PL when it’s full of un-evidenced waffle, but I don’t much prefer a conference which simply confirms my own biases. I am worried about the number of teachers who treat a presentation that challenges their practice with disdain and lap up the information from someone who tells them that what they already do is good. The former seems like an opportunity missed, and the latter a dangerous slide into groupthink.

Whereas the PL offering is certainly patchy, and I don’t see that changing too much in the near future, we can at least make sure we come to each PL opportunity with an open mind. Then we can all be winners.

The happiest days of your life?

I enjoyed my days at school. Not all of them, obviously, but even without donning my rose-tinted specs, I am flushed with happy memories. Most of these relate to the summer – down at the river or on the cricket field. Saturday lunchtime fry-ups and House singing; six-teabag mega-brews, drunk from cloudy plastic jugs; water polo (and especially the end of season BBQ); School plays and concerts in local churches, with the obligatory fag-break at the interval. But I was also miserable and moody at times, rude and obstinate at others. I hope I came across as charming and witty on occasions, but I fear these were few and far between.

I kept a similar group of friends throughout my time at secondary school. It is difficult to explain what brought us together, but we were compressed together like a single layer in a piece of sedimentary rock. Our place in the social strata of the school was defined by our dress and taste, most obviously in music. DM boots and Converse (both adorned with band names in Tippex), undercuts and piercings, Sonic Youth and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. Our cell would have been easy to penetrate – just wear a short-sleeved t-shirt over your long-sleeves, grab a pack of Embassy #1s and talk to girls in a painfully self-conscious manner for seamless integration.

We weren’t isolated from other groups at School – the red-trouser wearers or the genuine crusties. We weren’t so disaffected to refuse a rendition of Jerusalem in the pub at 11pm, but we didn’t go so far as to eat roast meals in the same pub before an afternoon at the rugger. We were comfortable at gigs, but only after quaffing a bottle of Thunderbird beforehand. We often ended up at someone’s flat, which felt edgy, but still talked to girls about what A levels they were taking.

Fast-forward 25 years, and beneath the cosmetic, you’ll find that nothing much has changed. Most teenagers are still socially awkward with anyone other than their close mates. Most still display regular swings in mood. Most are desperate for acceptance from the crowd, and will adopt an awkward mix of wanting to be an individual whilst looking, acting and dressing the same as anyone else.

This is all completely NORMAL.

Almost everyone comes out the other side of this confusing time of life as perfectly well-adjusted individual. It is a rite of passage; it’s messy, but that’s fine. It’s one of those times of life you’re allowed to make lots of mistakes, so long as you’re trying to do the right thing. I am surprised at how many adults seem to have forgotten what it’s like to be a child. When a teenager is uncommunicative and morose, that’s because lots of teenagers are uncommunicative and morose, and sometimes when they’re not, they’re affecting it anyway because it makes them feel like Christian Slater from Pump Up The Volume (replace with relevant cultural reference here).

Nowadays we encourage children to open up to adults, to put their vulnerability on show and to discuss their feelings. I have no doubt this is sometimes the correct approach, but if children don’t seek out these opportunities, that’s usually absolutely fine. I don’t think I ever talked to an adult in this manner through my school career, and despite being repressed in the standard English sense, I don’t think it did me any harm. Children tend to be far more resilient than we give them credit for, and they are most certainly not broken by default, yearning for us to fix them. A good piece of advice for adults with responsibility for children is to remember what it was like when you were their age, and to be the person and voice that you would have appreciated at that time.

Be a guide, not a rescuer.

The agony of choice

I talk often of the need to simplify education. Know your subject well; decide what we want students to learn; teach using effective methods; find out what your students know. That’s our core purpose as educators, and a lot of other things are just background noise. Chefs often talk about taking ingredients out of dishes to make them better, not adding more in. The same theory works for education – progress depends on clarification and refining, not obfuscation and over-complication.

One of the most paralysing aspects of modern education – and modern life – is the vast array of choices open to us and our students: choice of subjects, tiers within subjects, number of subjects, friends to contact, opinions to source, media to explore, TV to watch. This leads to an enhanced sense of FOMO: the likelihood there’s always something better to watch or read and that there are subjects easier or more palatable to switch to. It’s the equivalent of looking past the shoulder of the person you’re talking to at a party, convinced that there are more interesting conversations occurring just out of earshot.

Two main problems arise from this level of choice. The first is a worsening ability for individuals to immerse themselves in one thing. Learning a foreign language or playing a musical instrument both require years of dedication. Concentrating on a book requires around eight hours of undivided attention. Even immersing oneself in a film at the cinema requires two hours! But the sheer range of choice available to us means that laser-like focus on a single undertaking is getting harder to achieve.

The second issue is that of ‘downward choice’. There are so many academic safety nets put in place these days that the concept of ambitious choice followed by commitment to stay the course is becoming rarer. When presented with a choice of work harder/more effectively, or drop down to an easier subject/course/tier, the temptation to do the latter is stronger and more appealing than ever. I do a long run each Sunday morning. It doesn’t matter if I have had a decent Saturday evening – it’s important to take my medicine, so to speak. I always set the number of kilometres I am going to run, and I run that number of kilometres. If I ran until I felt tired, I would almost never run the number of kilometres I had set for myself. I could easily give up at the half-way mark, or earlier. But the fact I committed to a task at the start means that I stay the course until the race is run. It’s a decent analogy to academic subject choice.

Some choice is essential, but if that choice is opened up without due care, we allow the agony of choice to become a tyranny.

Utopia

Please note, this post is somewhat tongue in cheek.

In South Australia, students who successfully complete their secondary schooling are awarded their South Australian Certificate of Education (SACE). This certificate is administered by the SACE board. The SACE board has just ‘redefined its purpose in 2020 and beyond’. This seems an odd statement, because the purpose of any awarding body should be quite simple, and ideally any refinement should be minimal. There needs to be a curriculum, and there needs to be robust assessment of that curriculum. It is the teachers’ duty to sequence that curriculum, teach the subjects and prepare students assiduously for terminal assessment.

Nothing in the bold new vision concerns curriculum, pedagogy or assessment. Instead we have six elements (perhaps riffing on Ken Robinson’s book The Element). These bear all the hallmarks of a marketing meeting’s initial brainstorm. Who knows what other concepts, jotted down enthusiastically on day-glo Post-It notes, were rejected during the day, or how much rephrasing went on in coming up with the following:

  1. Zest for Life (Lifelong Learning)
  2. Deep Understanding and Skilful Action
  3. Ability to Transfer Learning
  4. Agency
  5. Human Connectedness
  6. Belonging

These can be found at this link: sace.sa.edu.au/thrive. I recommend you take a quick look, especially at the various infographics.

The six elements are bound together under the heading Thrive. I suspect this may be the name of the marketing company employed to come up with the elements (if it was, I’m certain the ‘r’ would appear lain on its side, just to show how much they think outside the box).

Each of the six elements has a symbol, of course, and these are worth exploring in detail. Zest for Life is represented by a person who is juggling whilst wearing a rucksack. Deep Understanding involves jumping from a rock to a slightly smaller rock. Transfer is a person jumping through a hoop to deliver an A4 sized birthday card. Captain Edward J Smith of the Titanic represents Agency. Human Connectedness involves completion of a giant (but only two-piece) jigsaw, by a pair of friends. My personal favourite is Belonging, which has a person hiding behind a giant sphere that has been recently used to squash a possum [I think it’s supposed to be a globe, but it screamed possum-squashing to me].

Just in case you were confused by the six elements, the next section of the new site seeks to explain what they are. Except SACE clearly want to hedge their bets, so instead of actually defining what they mean, we are treated to phrases such as ‘some phrases used to characterise…’ and ‘some teachers say…’. Apparently, ‘providing strict definitions of these elements…will limit what they might mean to you’. So that means despite being part of a bold new plan, they have no unified meaning. They remain only loosely explained and are therefore little more than vaporous truisms, hanging in the air like a sprout-fuelled post-Christmas luncheon emission.

They are hard to criticise, because no-one would ever promote the opposite of these six ephemeral concepts (sorry, elements). Shallow understanding and unskilful action just doesn’t sound appealing. And perhaps this is the genius of Thrive. Even when they have a go at defining Agency (and I am not sure that it really means ‘participating in active learning rather than passive learning’), they get cold feet soon afterwards and ask ‘what is agency to you?’ Surely if a word has a definition, that’s what it means. Or maybe ‘agency’ is going the way of the word ‘literacy’, which is now mostly tacked on to another word to give extra credibility eg physical/digital literacy.

Each element is followed by three loosely related videos, including the ubiquitous TED talk, a link to the perpetually confused OECD and some stuff on positive education thrown in for good measure.

Thomas More published Utopia in the early sixteenth century. It is a political satire written in response to what he saw as the political corruption of Europe. Rob Sitch’s comedy vehicle Utopia came along almost exactly 500 years later, this time lampooning government bureaucracy and PR spin. We have only had to wait another few years for education’s very own Utopian vision.

Criminal profiling

When I was applying to universities in 1993, it was done via paper form. Ever since then, I’ve found form-filling to be a stressful experience. From the early days of whether to use a black pen or write in block capitals, to the modern struggles with log-ons to various government sites (what was the maiden name of my grandmother’s first pet anyway?), it’s a perennially fraught process.

The university application was actually quite straightforward. You applied for certain courses, using your predicted A level grades as academic credibility. The higher those grades, the more ambitious you could be with both university and course. You then received a grade offer, and if you matched or exceeded that offer, you won a place at the university to read your chosen subject. Universities are (or were) primarily academic institutions, and for a chemistry course, they were looking to recruit the best chemists.

The final part of the form comprised one’s Personal Statement, which was supposed to give a flavour of the individual behind the application. Finding a personal statement that did not use the word ‘passionate’ was nigh on impossible, and it was remarkable just how many 17-year olds were passionate about the study of geology or business management. Once the sick-making ‘ever since I was a young child, I have always thirsted for knowledge’-type lines had been wheeled out, the PS aimed to present the writer as a mash-up of Mother Theresa and Mike Brearley. Charity work, volunteering and team leadership all tended to get a run-out, with minor school moments elevated to epoch-defining status and captaining the U14 ‘B’ cricket XI when the regular guy had measles offering clear evidence of leadership qualities.

The PS certainly had its place, but it was always a belt and braces exercise – to add that percentage point or two of gloss if decision-making got close. PSs tended to go through so many drafts, that often there weren’t many/any of the original words written by the applicant left in by the end of the process. But of course this only happened at Schools which have staff with a dedicated role to assist in this process, and these Schools are also attended by the sort of children who already have access to impressive extra-curricular opportunities, and degree-focused work experience. For this reason, I was pleased that the PS was never taken very seriously by universities, who were keener to recruit the real deal, academically-speaking.

It is a retrograde step, therefore, to hear that South Australia, amongst other states, are getting on board with a ‘learner profile’, which seeks to bring together the academic and other qualities in a single document:

https://www.adelaidenow.com.au/education/schools-hub/sace-board-to-create-learner-profile-schoolleaving-certificate-with-skills-alongside-subject-grades/news-story/60c496109b2f689fc3b33b13938177a6

I’m not sure anyone can be reassured this line, from the Chief Executive of SACE: ‘students may be working at Maccas on the weekend and demonstrate some of the capabilities we’re looking for‘. It is absolutely right that working weekend jobs is a good thing for young people to do, as is volunteering in the local community. But these things should be encouraged to promote independence, financial acumen, to develop empathy and the ability to communicate with a range of people. Somehow blending this into a School leavers’ certificate means that it will not longer be seen as a worthy thing to do, but a way of grubbing a bit of extra credit when it comes to university applications. We want to create a culture where people do good things because they feel a duty to their community, not because it might give them a leg-up for uni.

In addition, this will further reduce equity in education, which is already a hot topic in this country. Examinations are not perfect, but they do level the playing field, given that they are a meritocracy. The more we widen the sphere of assessment to lessen the control and validity of the assessment, the more we will benefit the already privileged.

Finally, the idea that one can assess ‘entrepreneurial skill’ or ‘ethical understanding’ in such a way that all students across the state are both assessed fairly, and with equal opportunities to develop and display those skills, will be nigh on impossible to realise. I am all in favour of all-round education, but when a student applies to study engineering, I would prioritise those who are the most competent at Maths and Physics. These people are likely to design bridges of the future that do not fall down, and if it means that they spent less time working in Maccas to ensure appropriate structural integrity, so be it.

Things are not always what they seem…

This is part of a quote from Phaedrus, who lived in the first century AD. Not a lot is known about him, but the line above is well known and the full quote is as follows:

Things are not always what they seem; the first appearance deceives many; the intelligence of a few perceives what has been carefully hidden.

We live busy lives, and it’s rare that we are able to give our undivided attention to any one thing. Therefore we move through our days in a haze of work, social media, Netflix, podcasts and our own internal monologue, all of which compete for time and attention. We pick up soundbites, quotes and memes along the way, and use these to bluff our way through conversations about culture and politics. By skating on the surface of issues, few of us perceive what is hidden, carefully or otherwise.

I re-read a pertinent piece by the prolific Greg Ashman recently, concerning the proposed ‘decluttering’ of the Australian Curriculum. At first appearance, this must be a good thing. Why would anyone want a curriculum to be cluttered? But if by decluttering a curriculum we really mean ‘strip out the essential knowledge required to be successful in a subject’ (which may be the hidden subtext), the concept becomes less sound. Decluttering one’s house by getting rid of unnecessary rubbish is a good idea, but throwing out priceless family heirlooms in the process is not sensible.

In Greg’s piece, he mentions the three strands into which science is divided by the Australian Curriculum. I favour a science curriculum that is rigorous, logically sequenced and details what children ought to know. In the UK, a strand called How Science Works was added in the decade before last, which aimed to get pupils to think like scientists. On the surface, this is reasonable, but of course there is no such thing as thinking like a scientist – the reason that scientists think that way is because they know a lot about science.

In Australia, we have a strand called Science as a Human Endeavour (SHE), which aims to widen the study of science from actually understanding the subject to being able to provide waffle-statements about international collaboration between scientists and the fact that science subjects are linked. The upshot is that pupils behave akin to foreign tourists reading a menu in an unfamiliar language. They are presented with a complex scientific article they don’t really understand (and neither should they be expected to), so resort to picking out gobbets of information relating to SHE concepts. Given the statements to support SHE are so vague, for example development of complex scientific models and/or theories often requires a wide range of evidence from many sources and across disciplines, they gain credit by cherry-picking single statements. A common winner is to notice that a scientist from Belgium seems to have worked alongside someone from New Zealand – bingo, international collaboration: credit unlocked.

If we were serious about humanising science, we could provide subtle and intellectual opportunities for this. The scandal concerning the non-discovery of element 118 allows for understanding of artificially created elements and the development of the periodic table. But is also allows us to consider scientific ethics, integrity, results verification and the darker side of the subject. Primo Levi’s book The Periodic Table blends chemistry, history and personal anguish, and finishes on an exhilarating journey of a carbon atom. There is genuine truth to be gained about humanity and science from these texts; they are worth more than what they seem on the surface. If we are going to build in a wider approach to the teaching of science, we need to make sure that it adds to the learning experience, not masks what has been learned.

Another wise man who spoke to the concept of things not being not always what they seem was the irreverent Douglas Adams. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he wrote:

It is an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem. For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he has achieved so much, the wheel, New York, wars and so on – whilst all the dolphins had every done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man for precisely the same reasons…

If it came to a choice between completing a SHE task and mucking around in the water, I know which one I’d choose.

Lambs to the slaughter

We’re about to enter peak interview season here in Australia. Term 3 is the time when most staffing needs are identified and filled for the next academic year. I consider the appointment and development of teachers the most important part of my role, bar none.

Teaching is not a high status profession in Australia, and the demand for good teachers generally exceeds the supply. The relatively low ATAR required to access teaching degrees provides evidence that many of the highest academic achievers at School are not tempted by the chance to develop the next generation of high achievers. This is fine – it would be pleasing to have a surfeit of excellent teachers, but we are where we are.

As Dylan Wiliam points out, you need ‘love the one you’re with’, and if we understand that all teachers can improve, it is the responsibility of Schools to develop the capacity of their staff. Professional learning should be personalised, enjoyable and empowering – the main area of focus for each teacher should be writ large and a sense of progression should be evident.

In addition to the responsibility of Schools to allow their teachers to improve, it’s vital that teachers begin their journey with the highest chance of success, and is (in part) dependent on the quality of teacher education degrees and courses. Put simply. if a fledgling teacher knows their subject well, is able to explain that subject well *and* is able to manage a classroom effectively, they have been set up for success.

I have been interviewing teachers for 10 – 15 years, and that means I have probably interviewed around 500 teachers and read over 10000 application letters and CVs. My evidence is anecdotal, but it’s also based on a large sample. I very rarely read anything in a letter (or the voguish ‘statement of personal philosophy’) relating to the candidates interest in their subject. I very rarely read anything about how the teacher ensures purposeful learning or manages a classroom effectively. I read a lot about the following:

  1. The importance of relationships in teaching.
  2. The importance of engaging lessons.
  3. Catering for different needs and learning styles.
  4. Ensuring students have a say in what they learn and/or the medium in which they work.

It is particularly true in the case of early-career teachers that application letters look to have been drafted in consultation with each other, given how similar they are. They tend to lack specifics, but are clearly intended to give the impression of a teacher who is uber-flexible; able to cater for the diverse interests and needs of 25+ students in each class. It is only when the interview questions get uncomfortably specific that the realisation dawns: this is neither possible, nor desirable. A segment may run something like this:

‘I give all students a choice in how they present their work. For example, a child who is weak at writing may wish to present their essay as a video presentation’.

Do you believe that all students should become fluent writers?

‘Yes’.

So how does allowing a child for whom written English is an issue the chance to avoid writing going to improve his/her writing?

And so on. It is incredibly frustrating to meet and interview so many early-career teachers that are clever, enthusiastic and determined, but seem to have been fed so much loose and progressive ideology during the time when they should be being prepared for a demanding job on the front line. Managing a large class of teenagers for a double lesson after lunch requires careful planning and sensible strategy to make learning purposeful. It is not a case that by planning myriad activities you can survive as a teacher by hopping swiftly to the next activity at the first sign of boredom. By planning lessons around engagement, because you know otherwise that things will go off the rails, we raise teacher stress and workload to intolerable levels and impact the learning of their children, given that it’s unlikely they will end up thinking hard in that lesson.

Nothing can be achieved without a class that is well behaved, or at least well managed. We have reached a point, however, where we are more likely to blame a teacher for not being able to control a class than the children in that class who behave poorly. It is my strong belief that we have plenty of potentially excellent teachers to fill our Schools, but that we need to do far more to ready them for the rigours of the job. Teaching is not so rough that we need to give them a metaphorical suit of armour, but a jester’s outfit covered in bells doesn’t seem to be cutting it at present.

Peak anti-intellectualism

As the corona-crisis extends into an uncertain future, an approximate date for the end of the pandemic is difficult to estimate. The popular Google search ‘when will the pandemic end’ evidently misunderstands how Google works (spoiler: it is not an all-knowing God) and with India unlikely to reach its peak until the end of 2020, it looks as though we need to steel ourselves for the long haul. It is probably true that ‘we suffer more often in imagination that in reality’, but the current situation is very real, and it also provides us with an opportunity to imagine things being far worse.

At a time when people’s emotions will be heightened, it’s hardly surprising that social media turns into a Catherine wheel. Ludicrous opinions are fired off in all directions, usually accompanied by a cry to ‘Educate Yourself!’, which is the latest irritating phrase that when translated, means ‘agree with me, you fool!’

I’m not sure much can be gained from entering into debate with some of the most vocal on social media. I don’t sense these people are interested in discussion, and are programmed to ‘transmit’. I like discussion and debate, partially to help me to understand, but debate is such a minefield these days that the chance of being blown up by standing on a particular piece of ground (even gently) is too high to take the risk. It’s often the case that this specific ground was safe a week or so ago, but the pace of cultural change is so swift that what was normal in June can get you cancelled in July.

Wisdom generally tends to be accompanied by a certain humility: the more expert one is in an area, the more humble they become when the sheer vastness of that area reveals itself. On the contrary, the simple and binary worldview of the internet shouters make it ever clearer that they are in the right and anyone who disagrees simply needs to eDuCAte ThEmsElVeS!

Why have we ended up with such a veneration of the anti-intellectual? Why do we actively frown upon the ability to think for oneself, especially when it means thinking something different as pre-determined by one’s identity? Why do we give a platform to pure ideologues with little expertise, just a simplistic view that celebrates division and rarely seeks to bring people together?

When conflict is the problem, education is usually the solution. If we are able to raise a generation with a nuanced understanding of the issues they are discussing, whilst also instilling in them a sense of purpose, we can be satisfied with a job well done. If we refuse to teach them that which needs to be understood, we do them a disservice. The following tweet is a single example, but it’s a commonly held belief that Schools exist more to rebuild broken children than to make them cleverer. Not only does this betray a dim view of the efforts of parents, it also promotes a dangerous level of anti-intellectualism. The dismissive term ‘content’ means the meat and substance of the subject in question, and by doing away with that, what is left?

 

 

 

Bouncebackability

Certain words and phrases in education have, in recent times, been applied so far and widely to have become almost meaningless. ‘Engagement’ and ‘wellbeing’ are my top two, but ‘resilience’ is hot on their heels. ‘Vulnerability’ is a good bet to take over in time, but but for now it’s well back in the field, alongside ‘higher order thinking’ and ‘the 5 Cs’.

I like the Elizabeth Edwards version, defining resilience as accepting your new reality, even if it’s less good than the one you had before. This is how we cope with bereavement, or the break-up of a relationship. Ask any alcoholic (presumably before 11am) and they will tell you: the first step to solving your problem is acceptance that the problem exists. Being resilient requires one to take the rough with the smooth (or, in the words of Mellors the gardener, Tha mun ta’e th’ rough wi’ th’ smooth). Life can turn on a sixpence; we should never get too high when the going is good, lest we increase the depth of the fall when things take a turn for the worse. Keeping one’s emotional amplitude to a minimum is a sensible way to ensure resilience.

In a School context, we should praise genuine resilience when we see it; that which Iain Dowie coined ‘bouncebackability’. We should praise anything that is praiseworthy. But we should also be cautious about over-praising, lest it loses its validity. Praising children for not misbehaving on School trips was always a personal annoyance. My general rule was never to praise those who carry out standard expectations; save the praise for when individuals have done something exceptional; something out of the ordinary.

Which brings us to this, produced by the SACE board and featuring various SACE co-ordinators, presumably as a gee-up to children across the state that their collective ‘backs’ have been well and truly ‘got’. It is a solid example of over-praising. A secondary point is why some of them decided to chose *that* background to their clip, but perhaps we’ll never know:

Students in South Australia have missed approximately one week of teaching time, and may have had another week or two of teaching done remotely. The current global pandemic causes us all to worry, but there are few better places to be in the world than South Australia, and the level of resilience we have needed to show is far less than many countries around the world. Disruption has been minimal, and though the level of uncertainty has been high, most of the heavy lifting has been done by teachers, not students.

I have a high opinion of the boys I teach. I think they are perfectly capable of coping with a couple of weeks of learning at home. I think they require a degree of reassurance, but also clarity of instruction and expectation. I do not think the Covid-19 experience will either break or define them, which makes this comment from the video above:

I’ve no doubt that in a few years time, you’ll be one of the most innovative and resilient group (sic) of young people…

an example of serious over-stretching.