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…


Insert creative title here

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

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

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

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

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

Never mind the b******s

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

Don’t write a long letter 

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

Don’t have a long CV 

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

Make your letter genuinely personal

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

Do some research

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

Teach the best lesson ever 

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

But…don’t rely on IT or practical demonstrations

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

Prepare, but don’t over-prepare

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

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

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

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

You don’t need to ask questions

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

Don’t do something mental

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

Remember that it’s a two way process

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

Calling out the BS

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

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

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

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

1. Life-long learner

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

2. Learning journey with my students

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

3. Teaching philosophy statement

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

4. Individual learning styles

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

5. Engaged students

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

6. ‘Teaching is all about relationships’

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

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

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

8. Odd teaching quirks

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

9. Writing things in the third person about yourself

This is really odd. We are not amused.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Educating Australia (part 2)

Sometimes when I haven’t blogged for a while, I write a piece just to keep things going. I’m quite good at writing what is basically the same opinion piece, either with slightly different words or slanted at a slightly different angle. Regarding this particular piece, I barely know where to start. I made my first foray into Australian edu-debate on Twitter last week, and it didn’t go very well.

Twitter is potentially a great platform for debate – it brings you into contact with a wide range of people with a wide range of views. It’s good to have your views challenged, to listen to the opinions of others and to be open to persuasive argument. However, it tends to break down in two ways: firstly when people have no real interest in exploring ideas, but instead use it to shout their views, fog-horn like, into the Twitter abyss. Secondly, when people see the principle purpose of argument as the need to ‘win’, and will do whatever it takes to force a win. It tends to mean that disagreement is seen as undesirable and this can quickly descend into personal attacks that do no one any favours.

Back to last week. One question being discussed was about how to raise the status of the teaching profession. ‘Status’ in this sense can mean several things: public perception of the profession, how attractive the teaching ‘package’ seems to an outsider etc and at least one aspect of status in a profession is the respect people have for those who do the job. Part of the general problem is that everyone has been to School and therefore everyone has an opinion and probably thinks they can do a better job than would be the case. I think teaching seems quite a low status profession in Australia, and at least part of this comes from the talent pool that enters the profession each year. This may well be a ‘chicken and egg’ discussion – is the status low because the talent is low or does low talent equal low status? In any case, every profession should be committed to getting in the brightest and best to swell its ranks.

In Australia, one needs to have a qualification in education/teaching qualification to be able to teach in a School. This is the same in UK state Schools, but not in the independent sector, where Schools can appoint unqualified teachers. I have experience over the last 7 years interviewing (around 60) and appointing (around 15) teachers each year. There is nothing more important, in my opinion, than the quality of teachers you appoint in your School. To this end, I have always looked to be creative in my approach to get the very best talent through the door. When posts were advertised, we used to contact the dozen or so top university departments for that particular subject to see if any of their soon-to-be graduates would be interested in a one year teaching contract, with the possibility of renewal. We appointed some teachers via this route, generally with great success. We knew there was an inherent risk in appointing individuals who were young and ‘green’ but our general philosophy was to appoint talent and back ourselves to be able to develop that talent. It meant we were able to appoint genuine subject experts, fresh from the sharp end of academic study. We had a few months to get them up to speed before they started with us and we had a thorough induction programme that would ‘train’ them on the job. Mentoring programmes (social as well as academic), strong academic and pastoral management and a clear School ethos were also necessary to ensure these teachers made a strong start.

Twitter only has 140 characters, so it’s hard to get all this across. My comment was this:
Benjamin Evans on Twitter: “Remove the need for teachers to be trained to get top graduates straight into the profession and trained on the job #acelchat”

In retrospect I probably could have phrased it better, but the point I was making is a condensed version of the one above.

My comments were challenged rightly and fairly:
Dr Deborah Netolicky on Twitter: “@thingsbehindsun does a top subject graduate make a top teacher? What about knowledge of pedagogy, assessment, behaviour mgmt? #acelchat”
Aaron Davis on Twitter: “@gripgirl @thingsbehindsun wonder if the same toolset, skillset & mindset that combine to make a top grad also combine to make a top tchr?”

My response would be that excellent academic qualifications do not necessarily equal a good teacher, but deep subject knowledge is one essential requirement. One needs to be able to communicate that knowledge, to deliver and embed the subject matter, to be intuitive to a degree that one can vary the medium of communication as necessary and to possess genuine charisma so that children are inspired by what is taught and the person teaching it.

I think it is probably easier to develop the ‘craft of the classroom’ on the job than it is to correct a knowledge deficit, but I accept this is a generalisation. If you can’t communicate to children, you’ll be a pretty lousy teacher, but the best communicator in the world will be of limited effectiveness if he/she doesn’t know what (s)he’s talking about.

Teachers are generally quite a sensitive bunch, and some were more vocal in their disdain, as evidenced by the following:

Joel Speranza on Twitter: “@pro_learn @Capitan_Typo @thingsbehindsun @debsnet @corisel This is just awful and completely devalues the profession. #acelchat”

We had the familiar argument that pilots and brain surgeons should not be untrained:

Glenn Langford on Twitter: “@Steve_Pinel @corisel @pro_learn @Capitan_Typo @thingsbehindsun @debsnet yeah, let’s train brain surgeons on the job too. Waste of a degree”
Shane B Duggan on Twitter: “@thingsbehindsun @pro_learn @debsnet similarly: pesky qualifications keeping excellent folk out of the cockpit of commercial jets..oh wait”

This sounds like a sensible argument, but I think it’s worth pointing out that a higher education degree in a subject matching the one you will be teaching can be considered to be relevant ‘training’ for one’s teaching career. We all teach subjects (as well as children), after all. There are plenty of successful self-taught chefs (Heston Blumenthal for example), and few of us will be interested in the specifics of their catering course, so long as the food tastes good. This is similar to the experience of going to a concert and listening to a virtuoso violinist. In any case, I wasn’t advocating no training at all, simply that we could in some cases provide this ‘on the job’. Every brain surgeon has to perform brain surgery for the first time, and every pilot must have to land a plane containing passengers for the first time, so all professions must have at least some aspect of in-service training.

I think the reason I touched such a raw nerve is due to people linking status with being official trained, hence removing that need for training takes away some sense of status ie exactly the thing I was suggesting we needed to improve. I take this point, but in a profession that does struggle in both recruitment and retention, I think we need to explore options such as the one mentioned above.

The other thing which caused indignation was the suggestion that excellent subject knowledge is a cornerstone of effective teaching. It’s not the only thing that matters, but it’s pretty fundamental. I am a pretty effective chemistry teacher, but I’d be hopeless teaching French, mainly because I don’t speak French. I can have all the classroom management sorted out, but there’s an insurmountable barrier which is my lack of expertise.

When considering academic qualifications, I tend to look at undergraduate degree first. Degree name ie relevance, class of degree, institution from where it was gained are all important considerations. The institution is generally dependent on performance at School, and therefore it’s difficult to be accepted to a top ranking university with a low ATAR (Australia) or low A level grades (UK etc). Academic success tends to follow on from previous academic and whereas your ATAR is by no means a be all and end all, it will shape your academic pathway and future to a degree.

I made the point that accepting people onto education degrees with an ATAR of 60 is likely to lead to subject in expertise in the profession, but instead of agreeing with or challenging that point, the anecdotes came out. If my grandfather lived to 100 and smoked 60 a day, that doesn’t prove smoking is good for your health.
Linda J. Graham on Twitter: “@thingsbehindsun @Capitan_Typo My husband had ATAR of 53. He went into PR & earned 3 x Ts salary. Now doing an MBA but wld have been gr8 T”
Linda J. Graham on Twitter: “@greg_ashman @thingsbehindsun His sister had an ATAR of 58. She became a T for an elite independent boys schl & wrote a maths textbook”
I’m sure there are exceptions, and the two above may be valid examples, but I don’t think it gets us anywhere to focus too much on the exceptions to the rule. I was surprised at the level of suspicion around those with outstanding School academic records and excellent subject qualifications. It is an unfortunate (and untrue, in my experience) that people who are highly knowledgable about their subject are generally unable to communicate their expertise, as though they operate on a higher academic plane to us mere mortals and can’t manage to talk down to us. Richard Feynman is a pretty notable exception, but I’m keen to steer clear of anecdote territory. Excellent subject knowledge comes about when one has a high level of raw cognitive power, has displayed genuine interest in their subject and has been dedicated to hard work. It is therefore odd that some people would prefer (all things being equal) to be taught be someone operating at a lower level in all three categories.

I still like Twitter, I still like debating on Twitter and I like to feel that I remain open and willing to change my views. It’s also important not to take yourself too seriously. I am clarifying my ideas on how I think Australia could improve its education system, but maybe that’s a post for another day.

Players, not plays

The above quote is a favourite of Vic Ketchman, the acerbic face (or voice) of the Green Bay Packers franchise in the NFL. Vic has a way to go before he becomes as quotable as Vince Lombardi, but this particular utterance is one of the great truisms of the sport.

For those who don’t know, American Football is a great sport. Imagine chess meets pub brawling if you need a point of reference. The game is brutal and balletic, containing expert precision mixed with mindless violence. The looping arc of the ball during the game’s final hopeful Hail Mary allows all of us time to pray, with our collective breaths held.

American Football is all about ‘plays’. Teams look to run around 80 plays per game, and each play offers the opportunity to make territorial inroads or to score points. Each play is carefully constructed by the coaches, called by the play-caller (usually the Head coach) and carried out by the players on the field at the time. Perfect execution will more often than not lead to yards gained or points scored, but the play will break down quickly if any link in the chain is broken. Maybe the Quarterback’s eyes have been read, the snap is not fast enough, the route is run sloppily by the Wide Receiver or the Left Tackle fails to block his man. The construction of the play may have been perfect, the practice during the week was intense, but if the execution was no good on gameday, it’s Goodnight Vienna.

You need the best players to make the play work. Any coach worth his salt has a decent playbook and can call an appropriate play, but if you haven’t got the players to execute, players who can beat their man opposite, players sharper than a diamond-edged sushi knife, you’ve got no chance. Players, not plays.

Australia is currently enduring a rather laboured debate on education, which seems to be focused on money. We’re spending more money than ever – why aren’t outcomes improving? And the answer: we’re spending the money on plays, not players. I think the plays aren’t very well constructed either, but that’s another blog.

Money is an issue in terms of status. In a country where the pragmatic and practical tend to drown out the intellectual and cultural, money is important, and rather than flinging money at ‘discovery maths’ (whatever that is), as South Australia has done recently, the country could do better simply to channel money into improving teachers’ salaries. Make the profession more attractive, to train and hence to retain. Sure, you may end up getting mercenary teachers, drawn by the filthy lucre, but so what?

Peter van Onselen, in the Weekend Australian, said with regard to education degrees that ‘there’s nothing wrong with low entry standards of quality teachers emerge from these courses’. Yes, I suppose so, but logic would tell you that if you recruit from a poor talent pool, you still have poor talent coming out at the end of your training programme. Recruit poor players and train them well: you now have well trained poor players. Recruit the best players by whatever means are at your disposal and these players will have no difficulty learning your playbook inside out, executing the plays to perfection and even having that touch of genius that enables them to (occasionally) tear up the playbook and inspire a generation. For the complete analogy, see Bart Starr’s ‘Quarterback sneak’ at the Ice Bowl in 1967.

Don’t spend the money on training (plays), spend it on getting the most talented teachers (players). That’s how to improve the education system. In the NFL, you have a chance of winning it all if you have the best QB in the league, irrespective of the quality of the rest of the roster. In a School, you’re only as good as your roster, and no-one counts for more than any other.

Players, not plays. Vic knows.

Progressive Education and Political Culture

This is causing some consternation in certain spheres. Good.

The Traditional Teacher

Snake_oil_old_bottleProgressive educational ideas constitute an attack on truth and authority. Traditionally, education consists of passing on to the next generation a body of knowledge, handing on to them the precious inheritance of human wisdom and thought which has built up through the generations. The teacher has authority because he has already mastered this knowledge, and has been chosen for the important role of passing it on to the next generation. But progressive ideas reverse all of this, placing the child on a pedestal, and asking the child what he wishes to learn. In making education child-centred rather than knowledge centred, progressive educators pass on this key dogma: there is no objective truth; there is only subjective experience, and to know more of this relativist ‘truth’, we must look within, not without.

It is well documented that these ideas took a powerful hold of state education in Britain from the sixties…

View original post 618 more words

Faking It?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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