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…

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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?

Pretty. Damn. Certain.

It is a line that will live with Michael Gove for a very long time. Along with the phrase ‘enemies of promise’ (I didn’t mind that one, actually), his utterance that “people in this country have had enough of experts…” will be played, replayed and brought up regularly when the hindsight enabled story of the political mess that is Britain in 2016 is told. Johnson’s hijacking, Leadsom’s mothering, Crabb’s sexting, the lesser of two Eagles and Corbyn grimly holding to office like some greyed limpit fastened to the side of a quickly sinking vessel: that’s just the last couple of weeks. It is hard not to be depressed by the mess, whether you’re an ardent remainer or a committed leaver.

Gove’s role has been the greatest personal disappointment because I felt he was a politician of ambition (and not just for himself), talent and integrity. I thought he did a fine job as education secretary, displaying clear purpose, vision and a belief in the transformative power of education. He was not the man to lower intellectual expectations as a result of limited economic means; instead he understood that economic capital and cultural capital are two different things and that one can provide a far better future for one’s children by becoming a fully educated member of society.

His quote about experts was ill-judged, and when watching the clip back, I noted that he seems to pause for a moment to comprehend the silliness of what he has just said. However, as is the way with politicians, there was no instant retraction, just a continuation down the path of absolute certainty. Andrea Leadsom’s recent comments to The Times about motherhood is a similar case. Why can these people not just admit they have said something foolish in error and move on? After all, to err is human; to forgive, divine.

We all speak a few thousand words each day. It was be surprising in the extreme if at least some of these weren’t ill-judged, formed factually incorrect sentences or simply failed to make the point we wished to convey.

President Obama, the greatest orator of our time, says here ( ) that “it’s not cool to not know what you’re talking about…”

But how often do we ever really know what we’re talking about? Who really understood what the effect of Brexit would be on the economy, or on the national mood? How should we best address global terrorism, the rising population or the possibility of disease pandemics? We do need experts, of course, and that is why democracy should never involve giving complex decision making over to the public, especially when such a nuanced issue can be couched as such a simple in/out decision, thus setting up a classic false dilemma.

We live in a time of bombastic certainty – Iraq was all about the oil; Blair went to war simply to cosy up to the US; you only care about the future if you are a mother; let’s take back control; immigration keeps our country going; immigration is an uncontrolled shambles; the England football team lost because they didn’t have enough passion, or were overpaid, or were at the end of a long season, or we’re not technical enough, or it was the tactics, or the selection, or the injuries. There is probably a kernel of truth in all these statements, but the status updates and 140 character assertions are over-simplifications at best. To express a state of uncertainty or confusion on any issue is seen as a weakness to be pounced on by the Internet masses, so we are forced to abandon the tentative in favour of the assured, like someone stamping for all they are worth on a frozen lake. The problem being that we have no idea how thick the ice is. We can only hope it is as thick as most of the people keen to be part of the debate.

The purpose of argument and debate is to persuade, but one should also be willing to be persuaded. Social media is a poor forum for debate, given that we can never be sure who the audience is; no-one wants to look foolish in front of both their peers *and* total strangers. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone concede an inch on Twitter, with the ‘agree to disagree’ line usually confirming a draw. More often, bold opposing statements are uttered, positions are confirmed and a stand-off is created, until such point as both protagonists become bored and search for videos of cats instead.

Arguments are not about winning and losing so much as accepting, clarifying and understanding. True certainty is far more rare than we seem to think, and living with a degree of uncertainty in all that we do is a more realistic way to behave and might even allow us to enjoy ourselves a little more, rather than seeking out the next stranger to pick an e-fight with.

I am, of course, willing to accept that I might be wrong about this.

I’m only here for de Bouillabaisse

The twin nations of Kandinsky, Dostoyevsky, Orwell and Reynolds have not covered themselves in glory over the last 48 hours. They can both be relied upon to show their darker sides when it comes to football support and the recent events in Marseille are pretty much par for the course.

From skimming reports over the weekend, it does seems that the England fans in the stadium were more sinned against than sinning. However, if one was tasked with pitting two moronic sets of football fans together, you would be hard-pushed to find a better pairing than England and Russia. Russian fans bring a heady mix of violent hooliganism and genuine race-hate. There’s a worrying certainty about the vitriolic hatred spewed by the worst of them, but one doesn’t get the impression they consider themselves to be acting on behalf of the nation. They are imbecilic thugs, acting in that manner because that’s what they are programmed to do. Football gives them a platform and an ‘enemy’ on which to focus, but they are the sort of people who will pick a fight with anyone, presumably for the most incidental reasons. Their anger runs more deeply than a wish to assert national identity and their hatred isn’t focused on any one group in particular, though it’s hard not to assume a directly proportional relationship between their ire and skin darkness.

England’s thugs on the other hand consider themselves to be genuine patriots; modern day crusaders keen to spread their gospel. They are united by a slavish devotion to Queen and country, St George and all things English. That is the line they peddle, but it’s simply not true. They are united by hate: hatred of things they perceive as non-English, hatred of things that are different, hatred of thing they don’t understand. They are the most mis-guided of patriots, with no message to deliver and no uniting culture or beliefs to fall back on. In attempting to fly the flag for Englishness, they succeed only in disgusting the rest of the world. “F*ck you Europe, we’re voting out” and “ISIS, where are you” (Marseille has a large Muslim population) are two of their little Englander chants. They do not define themselves by what they are, but by what they despise, which is both easy and and cowardly. Defining ourselves by what we are, what we love and what we believe in requires genuine integrity and a willingness to put our heads above the parapet.

A refusal to eat foreign food does not define you as a patriot. Neither does drinking in establishments that most closely resemble ones from home. Neither does shaving your head, inking a cross of St George or developing a beer gut. This is patriotism as defined by the English Defence League. At every major football tournament, England produce an underperforming team and a rabble of fans that shame us to the world. I’ve seen more faux chain-mail, bad teeth, pork-pie hats, sunburned faces, sleeve tattoos, fitted polo shirts and mobile bellies than I need to see in one lifetime. An advanced sense of xenophobia is not my idea of patriotism. Dewch ymlaen Cymru.

Sometimes they are five…

Why do we think the things we think and say the things we say?  What processes are involved when we form an opinion?  Whence do we gain our information?  How is this information synthesised into rational thought?  To what extent are we influenced by rhetoric over substance?  Do we agree with the majority because that is the generally accepted belief, or because we herd with the other sheep?  Is it confidence or dogmatism that causes us to hold the line against the majority opinion?  Do some people revel in being contrarian, argue black is white just for the hell of it, before getting run over the next time they negotiate a zebra crossing (hat-tip Douglas Adams)?

Modern living is busy, so we don’t have time to absorb facts, ideas or News.  Much of what we think is formed from snippets of twitter, comment pieces in newspapers, TED talks, celebrity vlogs and drunken dinner party conversation.

I’ve long believed that political change happens far faster than cultural change, and therefore it is the former that drives the latter, whereas it should really be the other way round.  But the pace of any other change still lags way behind that of education.  Educational bathwater is flung so far and fast that it’s surprising that baby has time to dip his/her toe in before the enamel is whipped from under them.

To have one’s ideas and beliefs challenged by others (and by ourselves) is important, and it’s only when we are asked to justify our statements that we realise whether those statements are etched in stone or traced with a lit sparkler.

I spent the last two days in Sydney, with a nice view of Darling Harbour, at a conference which was ostensibly concerned with the design of learning spaces.  Though this topic was touched on periodically, it also gave the chance for the presenters to espouse their philosophy of education.  This philosophy was remarkably similar, to the extent that some presenters were made to look sheepish as they moved swiftly through the same slides as the previous chap, their shock statistics looking a little less dramatic than they had hoped.

The more presentations I sat through, the more the same mantra was chanted: children in rows is bad; teachers who talk are bad; today’s kids will have 17 jobs in their lifetime (in five separate industries – which seems very specific); we need to teach C21 skills; content  and knowledge no longer need to be prioritised because of Google; Schools kill creativity; Project Based Learning is the future; children need to be engaged and this means teaching them what they want to learn…

This was no Brave New World, but it did remind me of another mid-C20 novel:

“Do you realize that the past, starting from yesterday, has been actually abolished? If it survives anywhere, it’s in a few solid objects with no words attached to them, like that lump of glass there. Already we know almost literally nothing about the Revolution and the years before the Revolution. Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, and every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day-by-day and minute-by-minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

The past has been abolished.  The C21 has changed everything.  Innovative and engaging C21 learning has replaced all we previously thought about how to educate children. Do these people believe the things they say, or have they merely been carried along on a tide of progressive rhetoric?  Some of the comments were so downright bizarre (“no-one ever became an entrepreneur by sitting in a row” was my favourite) that I began to question the basic intelligence of the people making them.

I wondered why these people are so keen to lower the currency of core knowledge and subject specialism; are desperate to tell people that knowing things is overrated and that everything you need to know can be looked up.  My conclusion is that they are defending their own knowledge deficit.  It is because they don’t want to be uncovered as being intellectually bereft themselves.  I heard some pretty empty vessels in Sydney, and they certainly made a lot of noise.

Part of the reason I became a teacher was a fundamental enjoyment of my main subject (Chemistry), but also of wider education: art and literature and music and history.  It is the communication of those fascinating subjects and the links between them that is the joy of becoming an educated person, not the transmission of some nebulous C21 skills to enable people to satisfy ‘what employers want’.  If you prefer The Apprentice to The Ascent of Man, you probably don’t agree with me, but I have difficulty believing that an educated, clever and knowledgeable individual would prefer the latter approach.  From my observations, it seems that the transmission of knowledge is only deemed unimportant by those people who don’t possess a great deal of it themselves.

Let us not allow the intellectually and culturally limited people to take over.  Let us preserve tradition in teaching and the passing on of core knowledge through the generations.  “The human race refreshes itself in complete ignorance” (Joseph O’Neill) and we have a duty to ensure the next generation is educated at the very least to our own standard.  Otherwise…

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.”

The Famous Four

I recently read a very good piece by Carl Hendrick concerning the importance of personal relationships to pupil motivation and subsequent academic success. Claudio Ranieri was (reasonably enough) cast as a central figure when providing evidence to back up this assertion. His Leicester City team will win the Premier League this season, which is I suppose the equivalent of many of the lowest achieving pupils at the end of the Lower Sixth all winning Oxbridge places fewer than 12 months later. Yet this is the same Ranieri who was sacked by Greece from his previous job, following an ignominious defeat to the hapless Faroe Islands. This is the equivalent of a teacher with the weakest results in one School being forced to leave for just that reason, then having the ‘Oxbridge effect’ I mentioned earlier in his first year at a new School.

All we can glean from this is that football is an unpredictable sport. The very high currency of the goal (which differentiates football from many other sports) is a major factor, but the sport is littered with managers (and players) who were riotously successful with certain teams before becoming catastrophic failures with others (Graham Taylor, Terry Venables, George Graham, Paolo Di Canio to name just a few).

Teaching is, I think, more predictable than football, but I’ve noted teachers arriving at new Schools with saintly reputations from previous employ, only to be distinctly underwhelmed with them once they started at our place. Incidentally, this is also common to football, when the player who looked like a world-beater when he played against you suddenly signs for your team only to display all the hallmarks of a true Eyeore the second he pulls on your club shirt (Marco Gabbiadini, I *am* looking at you). The opposite is also true – we have at times taken a bit of a punt on certain individuals with less than stellar reputations, who have then flourished in their new surroundings.

Teaching may be more predictable, but it’s also a lot more complicated than football. The more one reads, the more courses one attends and the more one discusses and debates, the more it feels like there’s a real lack of consensus over ‘what works’. You can almost always find some research to back up your gut instinct over how it’s done, and most teachers seem to operate that way round ie decide the best approach and then look to see if anyone agrees. Just as I tend to prefer chefs who only put two or three ingredients on a plate, I respect teachers who adopt a relatively simplistic approach to education. Make sure you know your material (and plenty more besides) inside out and then communicate that material with a sense of clarity that allows the subject material to occupy centre stage (not the ‘engagement activities’ designed to act like the glass of water slipping the bitter pill of content down unnoticed).

So much, so simple. If we all did this, wouldn’t our outcomes be good, and the same? Well, no, because there are two other factors (at least) which have similar importance. The first is charisma and the second is intuition. If we assume that subject expertise can be guaranteed by appointing subject experts (would that this were true in practice, but at least it’s measurable) and that clarity of communication for all teachers will improve practice, it is the second pair of factors that can raise the merely acceptable teacher to levels of greatness.

When the charismatic individual talks, people listen. Topics which have hitherto held no interest for you suddenly become fascinating. When this person talks to a room full of people, they are talking to you as an individual. You don’t take your eyes off them for a moment for fear of missing something. They are a wonderful storyteller, they listen to you intently and take a genuine interest in what you say. When you talk to them, you want to appear knowledgeable and you are disappointed when you can’t find the right words. Their praise is not sprinkled like confetti but when given it really means something. People compete for this praise and for the individual’s attention. I don’t think great teachers are born, but I think with charisma, you’ve either got it or you haven’t.

Intuition is similar – why is it that some people just seem to *know* the best approach to take when there are many factors supporting option A and just as many supporting the polar opposite option B? Of course, in teaching, there’s usually options all the way down to ‘Q’ and only one of them can be correct. These are the people who will choose option A on Monday, which turns out to be correct and then option B on Tuesday, even though the scenario is virtually identical. They will then be proved right again. Of course experienced does help here, but I don’t think it’s enough on its own. I’ve worked with some teachers for whom intuition was only a very distant relative; when given the choice of ice cream or a dog turd for dessert (metaphorically), these people would choose the ‘steamed pudding’ on every occasion. Mike Brearley famously said that ‘people are like plants: some need fertiliser and others need pruning’. This applies to teaching too, but it’s not always the runaway vines that need pruning and sometimes it’s unwise to add fertiliser to even the most recalcitrant perennial.

Some pupils will make any teacher look competent, and other classes can make even the finest practitioners look more Christian Gross than Mario Pochettino, but a combination of expertise, communication skills, charisma and intuition is pretty potent.

Let me know if you ever meet someone matching this description, won’t you?