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 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.


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?

Qualified = quality?

Of all the observations I’ve made on Twitter in recent months, my suggestion that it may be worth allowing unqualified teachers into the class room has been (by some distance) the least popular. It’s the turd in the swimming pool; the plate of pork scratchings at the bar mitzvah.

This was not an observation made purely to provoke. I taught in the UK for just over 18 years, in three independent Schools. There is no requirement for teachers to be qualified in the UK independent sector, and we were interested only in appointing the best people for each job advertised. The best Schools are always those with the best teachers, and nothing makes one’s job easier as a manager than having really good people around you, effectively making you look good.

We wanted to cast our net far and wide, and so as well as advertising through the standard channels, we used to contact the top dozen or so universities, enquiring whether they had any particularly impressive final year undergraduates or postgraduates who might be interested in a career in teaching, or even just or year or two’s teaching experience. We used all contacts available (through recent teaching appointments, ex-pupils etc) to ensure that any person who might be worth an interview ended up applying for any post advertised.

By contacting the universities direct, we could ensure at the very least we would be getting a genuine expert in that subject, recommended by those at the university who knew them well. We would be under no compulsion to appoint them, nor even to interview, but we did appoint teachers (maybe one in ten) over a number of years via this route. None of those teachers ended up being what one might term a poor appointment, and some were amongst the best teachers I have worked with. What we all seek in teachers are those people who really know and enjoy their subject; someone who is able to communicate their expertise; someone who can build strong connections with those they teach; someone hard-working, with an appropriate amount of gravitas. You don’t need a qualification in teaching to possess those attributes. You certainly need a good degree in the relevant subject from a good university as a minimum, but the other characteristics are related to the individual, and can probably be developed more than ‘taught’.

Comparisons are often made between teachers and other professions when it comes to qualifications, or lack of them. Pilots and brain surgeons are the most common examples used to scoff at the possibility that any teacher might be able to succeed without a teaching qualification. No-one would suggest picking someone at random to operate on a patient, but the training for such a role occurs as part of a medical degree, just as one could argue that the training to be a maths teacher comes as part of a degree in maths. One does not need a qualification from catering College apparently to be a world-renowned chef (Heston Blumenthal is self-taught), and though he may be an exceptional case, there are also exceptional teachers who have not been formally trained, other than in their subject. Teaching is perhaps more like driving. There are some drivers who despite managing to pass their test in the dim and distant past, should probably not be behind the wheel of a car today.

Teaching is a more natural act than some people think. Flying a plane is certainly not something that should be attempted without having been taught how to do it, but every single one of us acts as a teacher at some point. Whether it’s as parents helping our children to read or simply explaining to a friend the rules of an unfamiliar sport, we all teach, just as we all learn. We don’t need a piece of paper endorsing us for these skills, just as it’s not always necessary for a teacher to know about the 1944 Education Act, Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development or Bloom’s taxonomy.

I have known and worked with some excellent teachers and some lousy teachers. The quality has probably been better amongst the unqualified, but that’s because we tend to see these appointments as carrying greater risk and therefore only made an appointment when we felt sure of success. I share the concerns of many about the status of the teaching profession, especially the worryingly low academic threshold required to be accepted onto a degree in teacher education, but I also believe that despite its counter-intuitive nature, opening up the profession to a wider candidacy may just help to raise the bar. 

Connections over relationships

Good afternoon. The final day of Term 2 is always a good occasion – we have a holiday to look forward to, the days are getting longer, summer is coming and there is much to reflect on that is positive in terms of enjoyment and achievement over the past 9 weeks.

One phrase I have heard repeated recently is that ‘teaching is all about relationships’. It’s a decent soundbite, but an over-simplification. Teaching is not all about anything. Very little of any substance or value is all about one thing, and even if you believed this was true, you should not be able to reduce the complexities of human interaction into one simple stock phrase. Generally, when you tug at things, you will find the whole world attached to them.

A friend of mine wrote an article last year trying to make this relationship point, and he used the example of Claudio Ranieri and his Leicester City team, winning the Premier League against all odds in 2016. His point was that the strength of relationships between player and coach allowed the team to perform at a far higher level than should have been possible. Leicester City became greater than the sum of its parts due to strong relationships.

The next season, and a few months after he penned that article, Leicester – with the same players and manager – was out of title contention, battling relegation instead, and Ranieri was sacked amidst rumours of a player revolt. It seemed that the relationships were great when the going was good and turned sour when the results dipped.

One of the reasons I think it’s simplistic to talk of relationships being key is that it is easy to confuse easy acquaintance for genuine relationships – when things turn tough, does your relationship with an individual get stronger, or does it fade into the background? When you need help, who are your rocks, and who is like sand disappearing through your fingers?

I am interested in connections – connections made on multiple levels; connections made through deep, life-affirming, fundamental human experiences. We have a relationship of sorts with everyone we interact with, but we don’t necessarily make connections. E M Forster wrote in Chapter 22 of the 1910 novel Howard’s End, the following two words: Only Connect.

These two words are part of a longer quote, but it is the phrase Only Connect that is often quoted. It is connection to people that we must continue to work on, and that includes people to whom we have little natural affinity. George Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier that ‘the main problem with the working classes is that they smell’, and though he clearly felt a sense of revulsion when confronted with the miners of northern Britain in the 1930s, he also felt a sense of nobility in their willingness to graft against oppressive conditions both at work and in the home. He overcome his natural lack of connection with these people. You too will find people that are tough to connect with on occasions, but we all must make the effort to do so. It is far harder to display genuine care for those people you do not connect with.

16 days ago, a tower block burned down in West London. The Grenfell Tower was an oasis of poverty in a desert of wealth. The area of West London, in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, is one of the most affluent parts, in one of the most expensive cities in the world. The Grenfell Tower was an ugly eyesore, completed in 1974 and built high into the sky like a gangrenous finger, designed to house large numbers of what remained throughout its existence some of society’s poorest people. There were 227 bedrooms in this single tower block, and the death toll from the fire currently stands at 80. Due to the ferocity of the fire and the extent of the destruction, it is unlikely the final number will be known until 2018.

The Grenfell tower stands right on the edge of the patch where my brother works as an officer in the Metropolitan police, and perhaps it is for this reason that I feel a sense of connection to the residents of the Grenfell Tower, even though I didn’t know any of them personally and hence had no relationship with anyone. A compassion for people is an essential part of basic human decency, and it should run deeper than a cursory sadness which is felt for a second and then lost.

Stefan Zweig expressed this perfectly, in his novel Beware of Pity, and he said:

There are two kinds of pity. One, the weak minded, sentimental sort, is really just the heart’s impatience to rid itself as quickly as possible of the painful experience of being moved by another person’s suffering. It is not a case of real sympathy, of feeling with the sufferer, but a way of defending yourself against someone else’s pain. The other kind, the only one that counts, is unsentimental but creative. It knows its own mind, and is determined to stand by the sufferer, patiently suffering too, to the last of its strength and even beyond.

On a more positive note, it is often the case that out of great tragedy comes examples of fortitude, generosity and the indomitable human spirit. One simple example was that of Rory Walsh, aged 18, who lived in a house opposite the Tower, and was due to sit the equivalent of his Year 12 English examination the next day. He worked from 2am until 8am that morning at the Maxilla Social Club, helping to organise donations and with the re-housing of newly homeless people, before heading off to sit his examination at 9am.

This is in stark contrast to the involvement of certain people employed by news channels, who took to helicopters to circle the building, capturing pictures for a gawping public. For people in the burning tower, to think you might be about to be rescued and instead to face a dawning realisation that you were merely being filmed – to move from hope to despair – is unimaginable. For those people in the helicopters, to be able to detach oneself from intense human suffering, and not only not to assist, but to fan the flames with whirring blades and to offer a semblance of hope only to dash it, is something those people need to live with.

The truth is that we can never know how we will react in a purely hypothetical circumstance until that circumstance is made real. Character reveals itself in moments like these, and I would like to think we would all do the right thing, even if it happens to inconvenience us. It is important to spend time cultivating relationships, but also developing deep connections with people, day in day out, such that your desire to help and do the right thing when need demands is natural and never forced. Maybe if Ranieri’s connection to his players had gone deeper, they would have battled through the tough times together.

But, to quote Helen Keller: although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of suffering. Suffering is inevitable at certain points – I see it in the eyes of those I teach every day – but it is through a strong and improving sense of community that we will overcome. I am a great believer in the power of a strong, respectful and reinforcing community – it is one of the reasons I loved the School musical Oliver! last week. Quite apart from the quality of the production – it was the community – the music, the acting, the set design; the Prep and the Secondary, the boys and their teachers, the audience and the players. It was a coming together of people to produce a genuine community activity.

This is part of the reason I tend to favour whole class teaching and communal learning. I favour all boys following a broadly common curriculum. Whenever I hear of differentiated instruction, personal learning and modifications to curriculum, I think we lose out on that powerful sense of community, and though necessary at times, in its worst form it can lead to fracturing, fragmentation and incoherence in the curriculum and can even promote a sense of selfishness and entitlement. We are all individuals, but we operate better as part of a wider and powerful community.

E M Forster’s full quote is this: Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.

This College is your and my community. It should not be fractured and fragmented. This College is what connects all of us. We can deepen those connections by what we say and what we do and the care we take for our fellow (Princes) men.

I wish you happy and restful holidays, and a productive and purposeful Term 3 when we return. I’ll finish with the words of President John F Kennedy, who understood better than most the need to unite people:

 In his 1961 address to the Canadian parliament, he uttered perhaps my favourite Kennedy quote: “Geography has made us neighbours. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners. And necessity has made us allies. Those whom nature hath so joined together, let no man put asunder. What unites us is far greater than what divides us.

The Immaculate reception

I have written about the sport of American football before, and the surprising number of themes common to the world of education. Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 article , Most Likely to Succeed, draws a convincing parallel between the difficulty of identifying effective teachers and effective Quarterbacks. My own most recent NFL-related scribble, Players not Plays. has perhaps not reached so wide an audience, but think it makes a valid and related point: the contents of one’s playbook will pale into insignificance if the players are not fit for purpose.

I was reminded of the NFL again this week as I was made aware of a dragon I believed to have been slain. Caitlin Moran’s terrible Why I should run our Schools , George Monbiot’s development of a game for all the family, Sir Ken Robinson-bingo, and now this latest polemic are generic examples of an argument that, despite its nonsensical construct, staunchly refuses to die. It is educational bindweed – just when you think you’ve hacked away the final root, it springs up somewhere else in the garden.

One of the key principles of the argument, as if you needed reminding, is as follows. All information is on the internet, and everyone has a smartphone. So anything you need to know can be accessed at the click of a button. Hence by not knowing anything yourself, you free up your brain, and rather than acting as a store of undigested chunks of information, it can be used for nebulous skills such as thinking critically about the latest piece of information you’ve just accessed on your smart-phone.

Of course the people whose job it is to put stuff on the internet do need to know something, and probably quite a lot, but we’re not them, so we can just look up things they have placed on the internet whenever we need. If we know what it is that we need to look up, that is. And also how it relates to the other things we needed to look up to be able to be able to understand and give context to the thing it was that we didn’t know anything about originally.

Despite all this, the internet has not as a rule made us cleverer, and those writing the articles would have you believe that it’s the fault of teachers cramming Gradgrindian facts into the heads of poor Schoolchildren. If only we knew less, we could do more critical thinking. Except you can only think about what you know, and at that point, the argument fall apart. What even are you, if you don’t know anything about anything?

A disclaimer: I do not believe that all learning happens in class, or as a direct result of what we are taught by teachers, though they may provide the inspiration. The acquisition of knowledge comes from myriad sources, not least from the self. Learning how to learn is a thing, and we should embrace the idea that we can all be autodidacts.

This is where my link to NFL comes in. It is perhaps the best example of something I have discovered and learned about purely by myself. I have never played the sport, been exposed to it at School or university, or been encouraged to investigate by parents, teachers or coaches. I simply stumbled across the game some time in the mid-90s, and have been finding out about the game ever since. I have been to games in the UK at Wembley, and also in the US at Buffalo, Green Bay and Dallas. I have watched countless games live, in replay, condensed and analysed. I have read books, articles, message-boards, and have attempted to absorb the rules, strategy, history and culture of the game.

And yet, despite this 20-year commitment, there is plenty I do not understand. Tackling, pass-interference, the difference between College and professional game, the scheduling, salary cap; the effect of the 1978 rule changes, re-location of franchises, read-option and what makes a good long-snapper remain as much a mystery as ever they were. I have committed to finding out about the game, piecing together each fragment of information and developing links between them. Incidentally, the title of this blog is probably the most famous play in the game, when Chuck Noll’s Steelers overcame John Madden’s Raiders and set the tone for Steeler dominance for the remainder of that decade. It took me 10+ years of interest in the game to uncover this pivotal moment.

The journey has been enjoyable, but in terms of efficiency, it’s happened at a geological pace. If I had signed up for a 6 week intensive course on Football: America’s game (note: course does not exist), I imagine I would have learned as much as I have done in 20-odd years of auto-didacticism. And therein lies the problem with the ‘you can just look it up’ argument. Maybe you can, but even if this is true, it still requires effort, luck, dedication and it’s mightily inefficient. It requires the time we do not have.

With learning, there is always an opportunity cost; auto didacticism and looking stuff up might be a realistic option when it comes to transatlantic sport, less so when we’re talking fixed-time Schooling.

And if you don’t believe that, you can Ickey-shuffle off.

Teachers on Film

Who would play you in a film adaptation of your life? Many people already have an answer to this question, from the delusional Ryan Goslings to the (faux) modest Steve Buscemis.

If we change the question slightly, to ‘who would play you in a film of your life as a teacher?’, I wonder if the answer would be different. Our style of teaching is inextricably linked to our personality, but all teaching is to an extent a form of acting, with the classroom our stage.

Teachers have been portrayed as heroes, role-models, sadists and plenty more besides, and provide an avenue of revenue from big Hollywood blockbusters to straight to DVD C-movies.

There follows a list of some of the most notorious teachers on film. Are you one? Do you recognise any of them? Are these characters richly observed, three-dimensional human(e) beings or wafer-thin caricatures? I have collated a magnificent seven (one for every lesson in my School day) from least to most-favourite. Would you like to be taught by many/any of these characters?

  1. Susan Kennedy (Neighbours)

Not a film, admittedly (yet), but Susan’s story is one of meteoric career rise, moving in a relatively short space of time from working for Annalise in The Coffee Shop to being Principal at the local high School. It’s an inspirational tale; proof that you don’t need to teach any obvious subject, have relevant experience or even work long hours to be a successful School leader.

  1. LouAnne Johnson (Dangerous Minds)

Almost as unbelievable as the Susan Kennedy story, and with fashion only slightly less 90s-disaster, Michelle Pfeiffer’s character in this dud is ex-US marine LouAnne Johnson, who manages to turn around the fortunes of some drug-pushing kids, hitherto heavily involved in gang-warfare, through the writing of Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas accompanied by a liberal scattering of un-merited A grades and lots of chocolate. The film is adapted from the book, My Posse Don’t Do Homework, which placed in the context of tit-for-tat murders and drug wars, doesn’t seem all that bad. The film proves that you can turn around any disengaged kids by donning a plastic-looking leather jacket and teaching them a few karate moves on day 2 of the School year.

  1. John Keating (Dead Poets Society)

 From a personal point of view, this vies with Love Actually as my least favourite film, but at least this is one bad film, as opposed to a mash-up of several. Keating is the maverick teacher who doesn’t do much teaching, but he does encourage his pupils to ‘make your lives extraordinary’, whilst ripping up parts of books (the dull introduction, fortunately, rather than the bit with Whitman’s poetry) and allowing boys to stand on tables to gain a ‘different perspective’ (a slightly higher one, presumably). The Headmaster is less of a fan of Keating than the boys, and he doesn’t like the fact that Keating (like Dirty Harry) refuses to play by the rules. The Dead Poets Society is resurrected by the preppy boys as an ode to Keating, and we get a unison chanting of Whitman’s O Captain, my Captain as Keating is banished, ostensibly for being too inspirational, but also for wanton vandalism of School property and flaunting Health and Safety regulations referring to standing on tables.

  1. Douglas ‘Hector’ (The History Boys)

 Possibly the only play/film where a General Studies teacher (the subject equivalent of deep fine leg, which is where you hide your weakest fielder) takes centre stage. Hector is a flawed character, given his predilection for touching up his pupils whilst giving them lifts home after School on his motorbike. His saving grace is his inspirational teaching of said General Studies course. His technique involves moving the tables around a bit and acting out some of the material (though not too vigorously due to his own corpulence) to make it more memorable. He is preparing a group of ‘seventh term’ boys in a Sheffield Comprehensive for their tilt at Oxbridge, and despite this being quite a tough gig, he manages to get them all in, even the Russell Tovey character, who is clearly not very bright. Later, Hector is killed on his motorcycle, unbalanced by one of the boys on the back (there’s karma for you), and we get to find out via ghostly voice-over what happened to this Oxbridge set. Despite all winning places at Oxbridge, none of them seem to do anything terribly exciting with their lives, unless you count ‘Dry Cleaning Manager’ as something to aspire to.

  1. Charles Edward Chipping (Goodbye, Mr Chips)

The model for all long-serving teachers, Mr Chips is a School stalwart who spends his entire career (all 58 years of it!) at Brookfield Public School (which sounds rather posher in UK-speak than in Australian context). He develops slowly, from naïve young Schoolmaster, mocked by his junior Latin class, all the way to Headmaster. His promotion occurs at geological pace compared to Susan Kennedy, and the deaths of many colleagues during the war helps enormously when it comes to promotion opportunities, but it’s tough to hold back a tear in the final scene, as he utters the line:

‘I thought you said it was a pity I never had children. But you’re wrong. I have. Thousands of them, and all boys.’

  1. Miss Jean Brodie (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie)

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a grown-up version of The History Boys: more subtle, complex and layered. A false dichotomy exists between the necessity of rigorous knowledge espoused by the School’s Headmistress and the cultural and artistic pursuits favoured by Jean Brodie. This is a familiar theme in teacher-fiction, that of the creative and brilliant individual, hamstrung by the boring limitations of the system and curriculum. It’s a lazy stereotype, perhaps, but Jean Brodie is a teacher who needs the pupils more than they need her, and this is often the case with teachers who develop a small cult following in their place of work. The dramatic death of ex-pupil Mary, killed whilst travelling to Spain, her head full of the fascist ideals of Franco, is a jarring and unnecessary plot development, with the overbearing influence that Brodie has over ‘her girls’ evident to all but her. This is a film that is sympathetic to everyone and no-one, and is all the better for it.

‘Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life’.

  1. Walter White (Breaking Bad)

‘The One Who Knocks’ tops the list. Walter White manages to become a cold-eyed killer, whilst maintaining a slavish devotion to the chemical purity of his product. It’s a lesson for us all: you don’t need to sacrifice accuracy in your chemistry experiments to build an illegal multimillion dollar drug empire. Walter’s teaching style is traditional, but his passion for the subject is evident and the chemistry in the series is correct throughout, with a pleasing bath-tub scene involving hydrofluoric acid and the only appearance of mercury (II) fulminate on television that I can remember. Walter is modern-day proof that ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’, and whereas his morals become more suspect with each series, it’s tough not to be #teamWalter.


A Short History of Cucumbers in Ukrainian

Which part of a tree is the most important – the roots, trunk, branches, twigs or leaves? The fastest way from the roots to the top of the tree is directly upwards via the trunk, but does that make the trunk the most important part?

Is there a most important note in a musical symphony? If we play the piece faster, we’ll get to the final note quicker, but is the point of the music to get to the end in the most efficient manner possible?

In both cases, there is no single component more important than any other, and enjoyment of the journey is just as important as arriving at the destination.

It is the same with education. Education is not a means to an end. It is something we should commit to for a lifetime, for the pleasure of the journey, even though the destination may be uncertain, changeable or never reached.

My mouth is dry today, which is something I always experience when I’ve eaten a lot of garlic. I made and enjoyed a punchy cucumber pickle yesterday, spiked with raw garlic and chilli, and the effects of the garlic are noticeable. It’s not unpleasant for me, but I cannot vouch for the opinion of others, especially those in the nearby vicinity.

Here’s a brief story about how I came to make that weekend pickle:

I was in a Waterstone’s bookshop in 2003 (I know, Waterstone’s, but at least it was a bookshop). They have a ‘3 for 2’ deal that seems to run permanently. It was for this reason that I picked up Andrey Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin. I had never heard of him, but the curious title was enough to pique an interest.

I loved the book – typically Soviet in its (black) humour, with nods to Dostoyevsky and Bulgakov plus some absurdity worthy of Kafka thrown in. I gathered up and read Kurkov’s other translated works of fiction, and gained a better idea of the man, his life and also his love for his native Ukraine.

Inspired by Kurkov, I went to Kiev in 2007, and put names to places whilst also gaining an idea of the architecture, history and complex politics of the region. I was initially keen to visit Chernobyl, but found that once in the country it didn’t feel quite right to use it as a tourist destination. I visited Babi Yar and learned about the massacre of over 30,000 people during two days in 1941. I went deep into the caves with only a small candle for company to meet the mummified monks.

I heard Kurkov in conversation at Daunt books in Marylebone in 2010. It was a very intimate gathering, and a thoughtful gift bought for me by my wife. He was just as charming in real-life as in print, with an amazing back-story. It’s said that we write about what we know, and his experiences shape his writing, his humour at least partially developed to deal with the harsh realities of the break-up of the Soviet Union.

I am currently reading The Ukraine Diaries, his first work of pure non-fiction I have read. His latest book, The Bickford Fuse, is his most ambitious to date, and it’s always interesting to see a writer develop in complexity, message and purpose.

The food I ate in Ukraine in 2007 was cheap, hearty and variable – think beetroot soups, boletus mushrooms and lots of dumplings. I find that food is the greatest stirrer of memories, and have recently purchased a cook-book called Mamushka, by Olia Hercules. Having spent more time leafing the pages than cooking the recipes, I was minded after a few heavy meat-filled days to make the spiky cucumber pickle. It would be untrue to say I was transported back to Kiev (I didn’t eat any cucumbers during my stay there, something to do with a fear of radioactive dust), but as the waves of raw garlic washed over me, I felt a little connection with the hero of ‘Death and the Penguin’, Viktor Alekseyevich Zolotaryov.

Those people who believe education is a means to an end, knowledge acquisition is something determined only by syllabus and eschew all interesting things around the corona, miss out on the real spice of life, which is available to all who open their eyes wide. And by spice, I don’t mean just the chilli in the cucumbers.

Eliot put it better than anyone, when he wrote the following lines:

 We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Lions led by donkeys?

This blog post is inspired by, and related to, my experiences of various Australian education conferences over the last year or so. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about conferences, professional development, teacher training: what they are for and how they might benefit the developing teacher. A worrying conclusion I came to is that far from boosting the effectiveness of teachers, which must surely be the aim, we run the significant risk of over-complicating education, confusing teachers and in the worst case scenario, creating worse teachers than would be the case if they were left to their own devices to work things out for themselves.

I met several really impressive early-career teachers at a recent conference in Sydney. They were clearly bright, committed and sponge-like in their willingness to absorb information. Their subject expertise was unquestioned and I felt sure they would improve with time, practice and with appropriate support. By ‘appropriate’ I mean having a line-manager who knows how to strike a balance between support, development and challenge and probably a more ‘social’ mentor, who could be a slightly more experienced teacher able to offer more generic advice on how to prioritise and therefore cope in the School environment.

It is one of the benefits of teaching that most people will be appointed to roles months before they actually take up the post, and hence ample time exists for planning. Line-managers can be careful with the classes given to an inexperienced teacher, with the aim of enabling them to work on the business of pupil learning rather than behaviour management, which tends to improve with time, seniority and experience.

The best way to improve your skill in any area is to practice and then reflect, and in as realistic a situation as possible. There is nothing more realistic than a ‘class which counts’ and teachers will always tend to do most of their learning on the job. I don’t see this as a problem at all, especially given the safety nets I have mentioned above. If we can get the brightest and best into our classrooms (and don’t worry about the offical training, especially given its quality) we can ensure the systems, structures and processes are in place to develop that ‘craft of the classroom’. After all, teaching only requires people to have an excellent knowledge of their subjects and to be able to communicate that knowledge to their charges, right?

In Australia, we all need to complete a minimum of 60 hours’ worth of professional learning in a three year period, and on the outside, this is a noble aim. However, it does lead to a tick-box mentality, where teachers are keen to attend two or three day conferences (often far more filler than killer) to get their hours up. Most conferences (understandably) do not focus on subject-specific teaching, but on more wide-reaching matters of pedagogy, which tend to be less easy to take back to the classroom. The best thing I tend to do at conferences is make contacts, and I think others feel the same.

The aim of professional learning should be two-fold: to improve subject expertise and quality of communication (pedagogy). The former requires training to be domain focused and Schools could take a lead in this, hosting conferences with a specific focus on certain subjects, or Faculty areas. Creating a network of like Schools, with each School committed to hosting certain subject meetings each year would enable genuine collaboration, a focus for teachers on staying on top of one’s subject and a likelihood that each teacher attending would be able to pick up ideas and approaches to take back to their classroom. This would contradict teacher isolation, allow for sharing of good practice between Schools and would remove the need for well-paid consultants to offer ‘off the peg’ training that lacks the focus and knowledge of the individual School where it is being delivered.

The quality of the conference presenters (I’m judging from a sample of only about 50) has been low, both in term of message content and delivery. The word ‘engaging’ is used on an almost minute by minute basis, without any definition of what this means. When looking round the room, the assembled throng usually looks less engaged than Miss Havisham. The current edu-narrative goes something like this:

Kids in Schools are disengaged. This is down to the unwillingness of Schools to move away from a C19 ‘factory model’ of education, with children in rows and all content being passed on by the teacher. The C21 requires a paradigm shift due to technological advance and an uncertain future jobs market. All knowledge can now be looked up on the Internet, so instead we need to teach generic skills (creativity, collaboration and critical thinking) which can be applied in any domain. These skills are best taught through relevant, real-world examples, through a vehicle of ‘passion projects’ where children effectively decide what they want to learn about (content not important).

If you wish to know in detail why I think this is fundamentally flawed, please ask for my presentation from said conference, or peruse my Twitter feed for the last 72 hours. In essence though, the argument against all this can be summarised thus:

1. We are not preparing children for jobs that don’t exist. The vast majority of them will end up in jobs that do exist, and even those who end up in current non-existent jobs are far better off being prepared in core academic disciplines which have served us well so far and will presumably therefore support a yet unheard of job. The idea that success for an unknown job might involve not knowing anything is odd.

2. Knowing things is vital. You cannot apply any critical thinking to something about which you know nothing. Consider the quality of School debates when pupils are debating a topic on which they are inexpert. They can have as much access to Google as they like but without the background expertise, the debates end up being fought only on the surface.

3. Projects tend to mean pupils end up displaying knowledge they already have, thus learning nothing new, or worse still, they end up learning nothing at all about what they were supposed to, but instead learn only about the medium (PowerPoint, website, diorama(!))

4. The C21 requires no paradigm shift. Yes, technology develops apace, but skills of critical thinking, collaboration and creativity are not new, and certainly no more important in the C21 than they were in the C20, or C19…

5. Most of us are not interested in the same things as when we were ten years old. I loved the ships of the Royal Navy and the Roman Empire when I was ten, but I’m now pretty glad that I was introduced to Betjeman, Bach and Balthus by expert teachers. It has made my life much richer.

6. We live in the real world. Everything that happens in School and outside School is happening in the real world. I have no idea what makes for a ‘non-real world’ problem, and I expert solving other-worldly problems could be even more fun.

7. Children will always learn stuff, it’s in our nature to be curious, but it’s a good idea if for a significant amount of School time, they are learning what we want them to learn. Children do not develop their Maths and Science by playing in the playground, as I was bizarrely informed earlier in the week.

8. Learning is sometimes fun, hard, boring and thrilling, and so is life. Life is not supposed to be fun all the time and it’s the same with learning. We need to embrace all of life’s natural emotions.

9. ‘Disengagement’ is not a diagnosable illness (I’m sorry, Mrs Smith, but…it’s disengagement, just as we feared…). Motivation comes from the self, and it is with the attitude of the disengaged pupil we need to start, rather than running back to the crepe paper and glue to try to find a fun and gimmicky activity.

10. Stop using a ten minute Ken Robinson doodle to form your entire educational philosophy. It’s remarkable how many people who espouse the need for critical thinking can be so easily hoodwinked by an affable after-dinner speaker with zero teaching experience.

I would be happy to bin all teacher training, and instead expect all Schools to offer a thorough programme of induction and training for their staff, with a long-term commitment to develop teachers, and not just for the first year or two. We would get better subject experts into the profession, and not from those 60 ATAR requirement education degrees, but people with a degree in an actual subject if we removed the need for official training before commencing a career (please don’t use the surgeon/pilot analogy, it doesn’t work). I’d like to see a better balance of subject-specific training with more general pedagogy and I’d like for managers to remember what it was like to teach a full timetable, and to consider a large part of their role is to free up teachers to teach, not to brow-beat them with initiatives to show just how dynamic their leadership can be.

There were times earlier in the week when I caught sight of a young impressionable teacher deep in conversation with an out-of-date charlatan (yes, I am talking about you, Merrick) and I feared for our profession. We have the ability to promote and develop an outstanding new generation, or we can take them backwards by filling heads with out of date and anti-intellectual edu-waffle.

It’s our choice…