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 ( https://youtu.be/UjGUUGw0pQ8 ) 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?

The teaching cycle

The world’s favourite non-teaching education expert defines creativity as ‘original ideas that have value’.  Not much to argue with here, except much that comes under the heading of creativity in education fails on at least one of these counts.  In the real world, having an original idea is easy (hearing aids for dogs, anyone?) but imparting value is trickier.

In education, it seems hard to find any genuinely original ideas, let alone ones with value.  The same ideas are recycled (preparing pupils for jobs that don’t exist; teaching grit, character and resilience; remote learning and the impact of technology; using research in neuroscience to develop teaching) but often as nebulous concepts that are hard to argue against and equally tough to pin down.  How might these ideas be enacted?  How is their success measured?  When these questions are asked, the creative ideas tend to be as easy to punch through as tissue paper.

We are of course preparing pupils for the future, and I agree with Greg Ashman when he states that to prepare for an uncertain future, we are best served to teach knowledge that has been useful in the past – that which has endured.

My approach to teaching has always been fairly traditional.  At various points in my career I have played around with technology, social media and a whole host of ‘engagement’ tactics.  I have tried double preparation, peer teaching, pupil voice and no hands up.  I have explored innovative marking techniques, learning triangles, WALTs and student logs.  I have two starred and wished and been both red and green carded.  Exit tickets have been collected, pupils have been greeted at the door before entering an innovative learning space.  The effect of lighting on learning space has been investigated and pupils have been paired by inverse ability to promote peer assistance.  I have tried a 5 minute lesson plan, complete with starters and plenaries.  I have instigated exercise as a means to stimulate concentration.  I have modeled my thinking to try to get pupils to think in the same way and I have explored meta-cognition as  way to get pupils to control their thinking.

Despite all this, my most successful teaching has always been by Direct Instruction, and I define success as having pupils learn the subject, understand the subject, being able to communicate the subject and to genuinely enjoy the subject.

I have stood at the front of the class, with pupils sat in rows, and I have taught them things – content, facts, knowledge.  I have backed my charisma to deliver content in an interesting manner and I have tested understanding through questioning, written work and standardised testing.  I have tested factual recall and problem solving.  I have tested single topics and concepts and the links between them.  As Joseph O’Neill says in The Dog, the ‘human race refreshes itself in complete ignorance’ and it is therefore the duty of each generation to supply the next with a body of knowledge, a tradition, to prepare them for the world, even if some of those jobs haven’t been invented yet.

 We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring 

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time

Eliot’s words sum up my teaching career fairly well.  I have done a fair amount of educational exploring, but I have now returned to the beginning.  This teaching cycle is similar to the journey taken by many chefs.  They are trained in the classics, go through a phase of creativity involving unusual food pairings and food philosophy; foams, gels and atomisers; liquid nitrogen and dry ice, but then return later in a career to the classics, the tried and tested, those recipes and food pairings that have stood the test of time.

I wonder if this is a good metaphor for teaching, and if so, whether we are able to skip the middle *creative* stage entirely?  Snail porridge isn’t actually very nice, after all.

“…not because they are easy…”

“Today we give our thanks, most of all, for the ideals of honor and faith we inherit from our forefathers–for the decency of purpose, steadfastness of resolve and strength of will, for the courage and the humility, which they possessed and which we must seek every day to emulate. As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.”

John F Kennedy had just 17 days to live when he uttered those words on Thanksgiving Day, 1963. This is a powerful paragraph, rich in sense, not in sentimentality. Learn from the very best the past can offer, says JFK – our present is the reaping of what was sown by our forefathers.

Our arrow of time is fixed – we are borne ceaselessly into the future. We must be respectful of the past but never hamstrung by it. We have never had it so good – technology, communication, entertainment, diet, living standard – 2016 is a great time to be alive. When one is tired of 2016, one is tired of life.

Why, therefore, I wonder, does the modern day appear such a difficult time to be a School pupil? Exam stress and the pressure of testing; rising diagnoses of mental health issues; stress, anxiety, depression and concerns over gender.

We talk of building character, resilience, independence and perseverance – words that are often uttered, to reflect on Kennedy, but rarely developed. We lack the courage to see them through, being too quick to cite issues of well-being and damaged self-esteem before pupils have much of a chance to develop those qualities. How can one develop resilience without being challenged with something hard? If we remove the obstacle at the first sign of struggle, how can anyone demonstrate perseverance, or independence? In my experience, the greatest way to build self-esteem is through conquering challenge. Whether this is a fear of flying or speaking in public, or simply a subject or concept with which one needs to struggle in order to be ultimately successful, the feeling of achievement gained from having conquered the difficult and unfamiliar (even the scary and unenjoyable) is worth a thousand times more than plodding around in one’s comfort zone, perpetually completing tasks of relative simplicity.

Sometimes School and learning need to be hard, challenging, lengthy and boring. Not everything needs to be about engagement and entertainment. Keeping pupils engaged is relatively easy – teaching them something tough but worthwhile can be far harder. Giving them what they want is straightforward, but it’s also not always the best thing to do if you *really* do care.

JFK, again…

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”

Do you want an easy question or a hard question? Do you want an easy catch or a hard catch? Do you want to challenge yourself in the knowledge that the journey will be tougher but the ultimate reward will be much more satisfying, and by the end, you’ll know much more about yourself, your independence, your resilience and your character? Or do you want to be wrapped in cotton wool, protected from those who may disagree with you, challenge you, bore you or make you think hard?

We should always support pupils in our care. They should know that we’re in their corner, and they can trust us to be consistent, hard-working and to want what is best for their education. But we do them no favours by shielding them from boring things, difficult things and the need to struggle. Saying you care is easy, but if your version of care is to remove all obstacles from the path, you may be setting them up for a big fall.

Educating Australia

I’ve now been teaching in Australia for three weeks. Too early to make any judgements? Undoubtedly, so let’s call these impressions. I have swapped classes with Tom, Ollie, Izzy and Charlotte (who sound like characters in Downton Abbey) for Mitch, Bailey, Dylan and Harrison (who sound like a 60s supergroup). It will take me a while to get used to the sight of 18-year old boys in shorts, who currently remind me of characters from ‘It Ain’t ‘alf Hot Mum’, and I have thus far remained steadfast in my refusal to call numerical statistics dart-a, preferring the infinitely less annoying date-a. I wear a badge with my name on it to work. It makes me feel like I work at a burger chain, but more people seem to know who I am than was the case after 3 weeks at my last School and I hope that’s a good thing. Maybe I’ll take to wearing it at weekends. It’s magnetic, which makes it a very good badge indeed.

I have always liked Australians – I think they lie somewhere in between the wide-eyed, bounding, smiley, permanently-friendly Americans and the cynical, hand-shakes with old friends, don’t stand on the left of the escalator, I’ve got enough friends thanks British. It’s a healthy balance – everyone seems confident in their tanned skin here, and the country seems as close to a genuine meritocracy as I’ve encountered. Hierarchy exists, but it doesn’t stifle relationships and that makes colleagues good company.

I like the pupils I teach. I think they know the difference between being polite and simply knowing what politeness looks like. They are naturally polite -it doesn’t feel like a put on act. They are happy with adult company, certainly not overly deferential, and they rarely offer a token ‘thank you for the lesson, sir’ (in fact, it was well into week 2 before I was called sir, and have been addressed with a non-ironic ‘G’day, mate’ far earlier in my Australian career). However, they also know what good manners look like – they will look you in the eye, offer a firm hand-shake, do their best to answer a question when asked and present themselves well (even in the shorts).

There are some things I do miss – perhaps the most obvious is knowing the answers to questions I am asked, but I assume that will come in time. It will also take time to get used to the vagaries of a new education system. But good education is good education, and the key principles don’t change. Teachers require challenge, and every year brings with it fresh challenge. My reputation here is currently nothing, and that’s quite an exciting feeling.

When considering the two main continua in edu-debate (traditional/progressive and subject knowledge/pedagogy) I think Australia may have got the latter wrong. This is not a ‘my School’ issue (we’re lucky in the talent we have attracted), but I wonder if the country has done enough overall to get people of serious academic standing into the classroom. Brilliant academics do not necessarily make brilliant teachers, but if presented with a choice between someone who knows a lot about their subject and someone who knows far less, I’ll take the former every time. The craft of the classroom is an irrelevance without a high level of expertise in what one is delivering – otherwise, it’s just engagement and entertainment, and both these words are edu-neutral (ie they might be good, but not always). One cannot have one without the other, but it’s easier for Schools to train teachers in technique than it is in core knowledge. Working with clever people day in day out is one of the joys of teaching, and we need to make sure this brain train stops at every School’s platform. The status enjoyed by a profession in any country can be judged by the quality of people it attracts, and that is a challenge for teaching as for any other profession.

It’s been a great three weeks – welcoming colleagues, biddable and bright pupils and exceptional coffee. What’s not to like?

Passionate creatives

I think the word ‘creative’ might have overtaken my previous bete-noire (‘passion’) as the most over- and mis-used word in edu-parlance.

For example, I read this blog post recently, and found it very confusing.

A key thrust of the argument is that being technically proficient at something – cooking, dancing, playing an instrument – is not the same thing as being creative.  This I take, but no-one stumbles across a wonderful dish, choreographs a ballet or composes a concerto without having technical proficiency first.  Ferran Adria, Arnold Schoenberg, Sergei Diaghilev – these people did not display creative genius by simply playing around, like three monkeys each with a typewriter each hoping to put together coherent work.  They became experts in their chosen field by understanding the rules, the history, the context, what has been proven to work; only then were they able to break those rules (whilst still producing something of real value), to experiment with conventional wisdom and to develop their chosen field in a different and original direction.  These three men represent examples of truly original genius, but none of them did it by mere play.  All were trained to a certain degree – Adria as a KP and with a stint as a military chef, Schoenberg took the music of Wagner as inspiration (among others) and Diaghilev received extensive training at the St Petersburg Conservatory.

Punk did achieve ‘a lot with just three chords’, but the lasting legacy of punk is not in the quality of its music but in the anger and disaffection it represented – it’s music preserved in aspic, about as timeless as a Donald McGill seaside postcard.  Do people listen to punk for pleasure?  Does punk still have a valuable message today?  Are people still railing against prog-rock?

Ken Robinson’s definition of creativity as ‘the process of having original ideas that have value’ sounds ok, until you get to the point where he defines genius as being measurable by thinking of a lot of uses for a paperclip (and I bet he wished he’d never used that example now).  ‘Things’ that have value for me include thought-provoking art, theatre or film, beautiful architecture, cures for disease, valid political theory or sensible philosophical argument.  None of these came from playing around – they are developed through a commitment to gaining expertise in one field, often to the detriment of breadth through others.  Creativity is not hindered by rules – breaking or bending rules is easiest when one understands what they are.  Give a child a blank piece of paper and ask them to be creative – how many time out of 100 do you think you’ll get something decent?

I don’t think we do pupils any favours by labeling only some subjects as ‘creative’: Art, Drama and Music are routinely labelled creative, but Maths and Science are not.  The latter two subjects are deemed to be ‘rigorous’ and ‘useful’, with correct answers and limited opportunity to impart one’s personality on the subject.  This is nonsense – there is good and bad art, there are rules in music and there is nothing more creative than science – you get to play God in this subject, creating real stuff that never existed until your intervention – what’s more creative than that?

Finally, finding creative solutions to the problem of pupils not having a pen tends to trivialise the issue.  How about telling them to bring a pen, and trusting them to be capable of doing so.  You can even invoke creative sanctions if they don’t do so.  Incidentally, I stayed in an Paris apartment at the weekend, and the bath plug kept slipping back in to the hole when I wanted the water to drain.  I used a teaspoon to prop the plug hole open.  I suppose technically I needed no training for this and it *was* an original idea with value, but if we need to use examples like this to demonstrate the value of natural creativity over commitment to expertise preceding the creative process, I think we may have lost the argument.