My morning with Michael…

Unless one counts educationalists as celebrities, I rarely come across celebrities in my day to day life.  I used to teach Alison Moyet’s son, and very clever he was too.  Rowan Atkinson used to turn up to watch his son’s matches in a McLaren F1 and I’ve talked all things English cricket with Mick Jagger as he came to watch his son make a first ball duck one pleasant sunny afternoon circa 2000.  We had fun-sized mars bars at cricket tea that day and it is one of my life’s greatest regrets (thus far) that I didn’t at least raise an eyebrow as he tucked in – so many witty asides to choose from, and I chose none.

I recently spent a few days with my wife in Tel Aviv, and I managed to run in to Michael Gove and family not once but three times during the course of our first full day there.  The fact that we saw no more Gove during the next two days are probably the result of him avoiding his one and only stalker.  We had the chance to chat briefly (I cornered him in a gift shop) and I told him what a fine job I thought he had done as education secretary.  He was very pleasant (as one might expect when receiving a compliment) and though I expect he was slightly disappointed that I teach at a selective 450-year old Boarding School and not a City Academy, he didn’t let on.

Whether one agrees with Gove’s approach/ideas/philosophy or not (and it is inevitable there will be members of both camps), I don’t think anyone can argue to hard that the man is able, displayed integrity as education secretary and left people in little doubt of what he was trying to achieve (perhaps a hollow compliment, but not one that can be applied to many politicians).  I can’t have been the only person to note the irony of DC choosing to replace Gove with Nicky Morgan at the same time as declaring a ‘war on mediocrity’ in education.  Gove clearly believed in the transformative power of education; the fact that cultural capital is not the preserve of the wealthy; that great works of art and literature are for all, not to be whisked away from ‘kids like these’; that by focusing so much attention on the C/D GCSE boundary for English we adopt an overly-reductionist approach to the teaching of the subject; that it is important to pass on an educational ‘tradition’ that is strong in the key academic disciplines; that not all subjects offered at GCSE are equal and that chasing grades by offering a slew of non-academic courses does not represent valid educational practice; that attempting to gain grades by multiple re-sitting of the same papers at the expense of spending time on teaching and understanding is educationally corrupt.  

I have no idea whether literature from the C19 is beyond many children, but I do know that it is the job of teacher and parents to foster a sense of intellectual curiosity in their pupils/children and to make sure they retain an ambitious approach to learning.  I prefer to believe that you can teach virtually anything to anyone, at least at some level.  If the child is enthused, they are more likely to become an auto-didact, and learning doesn’t just take place in School.  My experience of teaching tells me that rarely are children (or adults) working at capacity, and that when the bar is raised, most people are able to jump higher.  I have been amazed at the response of 13-year old pupils to T S Eliot this year – they may not have loved The Wasteland or understood all (much?) of it, but they’ve gained plenty from the text and all of the connections (Classics, History, Art) one can make to it.

Gove clearly failed to bring the vast majority of teachers on board with him.  He will be remembered at least as much for his utterances about ‘enemies of promise’ and ‘the blob’ as he will about the rhetoric that was supposed to empower teachers and to encourage them to be ambitious personally and ambitious for their pupils.  In the end, tone matters, and lots of teachers didn’t much care for his.  It is unusual that so many teachers who can object to his combative logic consider it reasonable to launch personal attacks that are little to do with educational philosophy and more to do with their own emotional.  

I doubt that our paths will cross again, and certainly not any time soon, but the last I saw of him was enjoying a lengthy quiz with his children.  In half an hour over a family lunch, it was noticeable just how much knowledge was absorbed by the kids, and just how much they enjoyed it.  Each question from the top of his head was connected to the last, and a subtle build-up of of connected ‘grammar’ (in the Trivium sense) was palpable.  Maybe we’re all guilty of thinking the world right in front of us can be extrapolated further and applied well beyond our immediate sphere, and admittedly they were his own children, but if he ever wanted a teaching job, I’d hire him like a shot.  





How Twitter ruined your life

Twitter replaces an awful lot.  It replaces live sport, breaking news, your actual friends.  It’s great for connecting you to people and events and it’s true to say that almost everything in which I have an interest (museums, galleries, sports teams, newspapers, travel destinations) has an associated Twitter feed, in many cases a better start-point for information than the website.  I always try to explain Twitter to people as an information-filter: it’s about the information that you gather in, not the information that emanates from you.  Twitter is for your eyes, not your mouth.  My own use of Twitter has changed over the 5+ years I’ve been a user (phrase deliberate).  I now use it in a far more professional context, which may explain why I’ve become more dull over time.

A recent study shows that over 70% of Twitter users check their feed within 3 minutes of waking up.  Leaving aside this most obvious way that Twitter can ruin your life (addiction), there are several more subtle negative aspects to Twitter.  Guard against them.

1.  Only following people whose opinions you agree with.

Being open to ideas and opinions is important, but following only people who agree with you is likely to cement your position even before a discussion has started.  I’ve had the misfortune to work with one or two people whose confidence in their right-ness was astounding.  If at any point you disagreed with them, you were either an idiot, or someone who had simply not thought enough about the argument: think it through again, and I’m sure you’ll agree with me.  If you are going to argue, it’s important to be open to persuasion.  It’s the discussion that should be important, not the ‘winning’.  It’s also hard to ‘win’ an argument in 140 characters, especially against someone with a long-ish Twitter handle.  For every person who agrees with you fundamentally, try to follow one who doesn’t, unless the first person you followed was the Anne Frank house, for example.  You’ll find your feed has far more balance and you might even come to respect the opinions of those who disagree with you.

2.  The over-thought Bio.

Changing your profile picture on a regular basis is just about acceptable, but changing your Bio is odd.  You are not David Bowie and you don’t need to continually re-invent yourself.  I’m not even sure what the point of a Bio is, and if you’re trying to crow-bar some comedy into what you write, stop it.  Stop it now.  There are some things that shouldn’t need to be written: if you have kids, we take it as read that you think they are ‘wonderful’.  If you work in IT, you do not need to state that you have 2.0 kids (that joke became obsolete around the same time as the ZX Spectrum).  Stating that you are ‘partial to the odd glass of wine’ does not make you sound like a lot of fun, just someone without any genuine interests.  The Bio is meant for people to see at a glance if they wish to follow you or not, but reading the top 5/10 Tweets from someone’s timeline is a far more reliable way of telling what you’re getting.  It didn’t take me long to find two examples of bafflingly pointless Bios:

‘Editor and professional procrastinator.  Massively confused by the whole thing’


‘Curmudgeon.  Neither in School, nor of school, but by school.  Brace yourself – there may be a kerfuffle’


No, I’ve no idea either.


3.  Your dinner.

No-one cared what you ate for dinner before you were on Twitter, and nothing has changed.  Did you ever take a polaroid photo of your evening meal and pass it round the office the following day? (note: this is rhetorical, I hope).  By all means post photos of your culinary creations, but to avoid a false sense of over-importance, you must first assume that no-one is going to view them.

4.  Being proud to be blocked.

Blocking people is fairly unusual.  The only people I ever block are generally spam sex-bots with alluring names like @ej35xxx80.  Famous people with lots of followers seem to have endless reserves of patience and will generally threaten blocking before actually doing so; you’ve actually got to be pretty offensive to have people hit the block button on you.  Being blocked shouldn’t be something to be proud of, but I’ve seen lots of Bios where people are delighted to state that they’ve been blocked by someone they disagree with, which strikes me as wrong.

5.  Protecting your account.

Twitter is public.  It’s pretty much the whole point of Twitter.  If you want to protect yourself from everyone but your nearest and dearest, that’s what Facebook is for, your real friends.  People with 7 followers and a protected account might just be missing the point.  I’d understand if what you’re writing is top secret (maybe you’re working towards who really killed Kennedy), but then Twitter is probably not your ideal medium.

And now I’m off to make some truffled eggs.  Photo on Instagram in 5.

False dilemma

I am no expert on critical thinking, but the title of this blog post refers to a standard argument fallacy, that of the false dilemma.  It’s a technique beloved of low-grade arguers, where in order to promote their line of thought, it is presented as one of only two possible alternatives, with the other option usually picked for the reason that it’s totally inappropriate.

Here’s a good example, about global climate change:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zORv8wwiadQ in which the presenter limits our options for dealing with climate change as ‘do something’ or ‘do nothing’.  Whereas I understand that ‘do nothing’ is a stand-alone option, a myriad of possibilities lie within the ‘do something’ heading.  If I were to donate £1 to climate change research, we would still be doing something, just nothing very significant and I’m not sure that many climate change advocates would consider this to be doing enough to allow them to rest easy.

Twitter is a good forum for educational debate, though as @oldandrewuk and @toryeducation proved yesterday, it’s tricky to win an argument on Twitter.  It’s also good for providing links to education blogs that are worth reading.  The problem with many of the blog posts, though probably not the bloggers themselves, is that the majority can be placed firmly on one side of the argument or the other.

The argument goes something like this:

Blog A: teachers are meant to teach.  There’s nothing wrong with tried and tested didactic methods.  Pupils aren’t in the class to have fun, they are there to learn.  Learning is characterised by good teacher subject knowledge and hard work from pupils.

Blog B: teachers are facilitators.  Pupils should work in groups as much as possible in order that peer teaching can take place.  Education is more about skills and problem solving than merely acquiring dry facts; all information can be found on google anyway.

This will generally be followed by all those who agree with Blog A re-blogging it to their own blog, re-tweeting its existence and complimenting the writer for telling the truth about education.  All those who agree with Blog B will do something similar with Blog B and will challenge (usually on Twitter) those who agree with Blog A (with the reverse also being true).

But this argument isn’t black and white.  Blog A is no more true than Blog B and vice versa.  To see the debate as one with only two answers is a false dilemma and if the answer needs defining at all it’s more of a continuum than a right/wrong.  Every teacher should feel happy placing themselves at one end of the continuum or the other, depending on the subject, topic, year group, ability of the class, time of day or just for the need to experiment.  

Sometimes I teach lessons which are characterised by an awful lot of teacher talking and other lessons involve pupils finding out things for themselves with very little input from me.  Sometimes the pupils walk out and I know they possess far more knowledge than when they entered the room and other times we’ve just had some fun (though I feel sure to be corrected on this one if any of the pupils I teach ever read this).  There isn’t a right way and a wrong way to teach – I’ve seen superb lessons that bore virtually no resemblance to other superb lessons I’ve observed.  I’ve also seen dire lessons dominated by the teacher and dire lessons where it was difficult to know if a teacher was in the room.  One of the greatest things about teaching is the flexibility it affords and yet some people are keen to be hamstrung by their own certainty that their method is the one that ‘works’.

Much as I like Twitter, some people spend so long defending their own method and attacking others that it seems as though that’s all they do – defend and attack.  There are other alternatives; it’s what one might call a false dilemma.


Young is wasted on the Youth

As a mild-mannered individual, there’s really very little that winds me up. There’s a whole raft of little niggles; people who describe sportsmen/sporting acts as ‘world class’ and people who look at the desserts first on a menu are just two, but I can live with that, and apart from the involuntary curl of the top lip, these gripes tend to pass me by.

I watched a little of the ‘Toby Young sets up a Free School’ programme last week, and despite the fact that I was only half watching, the man and his ideals really grated with me. The premise was that Toby (restaurant critic and occasional columnist/minor reality TV channel 5-based celebrity) had suddently become impassioned with the need to challenge the British education system, and felt that the Free Schools programme was the way to do this. In case you weren’t aware, the idea behind Free Schools is that anyone can set up a School, so long as they make their bid to the Government, have a building, a curriculum and some teachers. They are supposed to be ‘all-ability, state-funded Schools set up as a result of parental demand’. This is a classic example of the ‘idea that sounds good when sold to the man on the street’, but is in fact so flawed as to be laughable. It’s a bit like the Labour ideal of 50% of people going to university, which sounds good until you realise that there aren’t any more good jobs out there than before, except now people are required to get into heavy debt gaining meaningless degrees from the university of Luton before they are able to get out into the work place and get the same job/earn the same amount of money as they would have done before their 3 year life hiatus.

Anyway, Toby’s point was that education has lost its way. Fair enough; in many ways it has. We could attack grade inflation, oversized classrooms, untrained teachers, the irrelevance of parts od the National Curriculum. Unfortunately, in the most myopic way possible, he decided that the reason it had lost its way could essentially be summed up by his own experience, which involved being un-motivated by teachers (no word of his own or his parents’ responsibility), and achieving no real grades at all. Now most people would have said at this point that if the teachers were not motivating, we should look to either swap the teachers we have (not realistic) or invest money in making the teachers we have better (realistic, relatively cheap and emintently sensible). Incidentally, Toby, this is where the real problem lies, in the lack of quality in some areas of the teaching profession, and the lack of structure in the homes of many young people.

This may not have made such good TV however, so Toby’s point was that we needed to re-structure the curriculum so that there was more rigour, and this included harking back to what he called a ‘classical education’. Not sure if he knew what he meant by this, but it enabled him to sound knowledgable from behind his spcs. This also sounded suspiciously like the curriculum that a middle-aged man who had ballsed up his School career would like to go back to School to study, but this may be due to the fact that Toby has no experience of Schools, teaching, the education process, motivation of young minds or any research into what actually makes pupils want to learn.

No-one would ever allow the public to set up their own defence academies, or their own hospitals, thinking that having a passion and a misguided sense of what was wrong with the MOD or NHS would be a sensible idea, though with education it seems fair game. It’s the equivalent of that bloke in the pub who spends all his time criticising the England team, claiming to anyone who will listen that all we need are ‘real Englishmen with passion’. His pub team?

I did think that I might have been a bit harsh on Toby, so I went to his Free School website, which has a 7 minute clip of him on the homepage. This was his chance to change my mind, to prove to me that it was the education of the nation that he really cared about, rather than keeping his TV career away from channel 5. ‘Motivation…classical curriculum…soundbite…soundbite…3 minute story about arriving in the wrong Welsh village…end’. Toby, drop me an email, and I’ll speak to you about education. It’s something I know about. You can then tell me all about celebrity come dine with me, which is something you know about. Let’s not move too far outside our respective spheres of expertise.