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‘Sir’ is a state school English teacher in a big city in the UK. Prior to this he worked with children with a variety of Special Educational Needs, particularly those with behavioural and social problems. His teaching has been rated as ´Outstanding´ by Ofsted which means he once did a great job for 50 minutes. Save for a light dusting of fiction in order to protect the innocent (and indeed the guilty) anything recounted here is absolutely true. Otherwise, there will be some exciting political debate where everything Sir thinks is also absolutely true. Twitter: @seekingsir

23 January 2016

Sometimes it’s not carelessness and it’s not laziness: it’s gorillas and radiologists

Me: Right, you’ve been writing for 20 minutes.  Does anyone have anything that will change the face of contemporary literature as we know it?

Jerome: [hand shooting into the air and speaking in a confident tone] Mine’s sick Sir!

Me: OK, read me the first few lines…

I position myself over his shoulder so that I can follow what he is reading.  The opening line is written very clearly as follows:

‘It was a rain day they we’re tired’

Confidently, Jerome begins to read.

Jerome: [reading with excellent dramatic emphasis] It was a rainy day.  They were tired…

Me: [interjecting gently] Read it as it’s written Jerome.

Jerome: OK Sir: It was a rainy day.  They were tired…

Me: [interjecting a little more forcefully ] No, Jerome. Concentrate. Read the words as you’ve written them on the page.

Jerome: [with a quizzical look] I am Sir, look [points at book]: It was a rainy day.  They were tired…

Me: [interjecting forcefully] Jerome, I’m trying to teach you something here.  Read each word as it’s written on the page please.

Jerome: OK Sir: It was a rainy day.  They were…

Me:  [interjecting more forcefully] What are you doing?

Jerome: Reading, Sir.  But you keep stopping me.  And the next bit is siiiick Sir - it will definitely change the face of literacy!  

Me: ...You’re not really reading what you wrote though are you?

Jerome: [confused] What am I reading then Sir…?

Me: [with creeping exasperation] Right, let’s try this one more time.  This time, I want you to read very slowly and really pay attention to each word in the opening line.  OK?

Jerome: OK Sir: It [pause] was [pause] a [pause] rainy…

Me: [interjecting wildly like a pedant possessed] No! Read what it actually says!  On the actual page where you actually wrote it!  You wrote it for goodness sake, you should be able to read it! I swear, it would be easier to teach an actual potato!

Jerome: [nonplussed] That’s harsh Sir.

Me: Harsh but fair Jerome, harsh but fair…

Jerome: You’ve got problems Sir.

Me: Please shut up, Jerome.  I’m trying to focus on gouging my eyes out with my board pen as I plunge into existential crisis.

Bell rings; exeunt all players, one with the joyful bounce of youthful ignorance, the other with the uniquely haunted look of a man urgently in need of half-term

The above exchange (amended only marginally to trim the sardonic extremity of my usual soul-crushing classroom rhetoric) has been a fairly common one over the years.  I once had a pupil read me an error-strewn sentence a full seven times.  Each time, he read the sentence as if it were error-free.  It was infuriating but illuminating in equal measure.  The thing that’s important to note here is that this pupil could read.  In fact, he could read very well – his inference skills were not the most developed but he could certainly decode text accurately: his phonemes and blending were very secure and his comprehension was sound.  If I asked him to read a section of a novel or a newspaper article aloud to the class he would do so very competently.  He certainly wouldn’t invent letters on the page that weren’t actually there or inadvertently add articles where none were really present.  What’s more, if I put were and we’re on the board he would, I have absolutely no doubt, have been able to read each correctly and explain the difference between them.  He could even have explained why there was an apostrophe in we’re.  He could also identify a full stop and explain its use.  

So what was going on?  Why was he making so many basic mistakes with things that he ostensibly knew not to do and why could he not spot these mistakes when they were so glaringly obvious?  And, earnest pedagogue of the English language that I am, how was I supposed to help him fix things?

The answers to these questions, I think, have to do with cats, jumpers and, most probably, basketball, gorillas and, I’m pretty sure, Boston radiologists.  That is to say that the root of my student’s problems likely has more than a little to do with the theory of schema and the inherent tendency towards self-deception of the human brain. 

Our brains, as many studies tell us, are, in some very important respects, designed not to think.  For those of you not acquainted with much cognitive psychology, this may sound counter-intuitive.  But really, it makes perfect sense: the role of our brains is, largely, to interpret information for us so that we don’t have to exert ourselves unnecessarily by laboriously thinking stimuli through and drawing conclusions.  In fact, this is largely the central premise of the thesis promulgated by cognitive scientist J D Willingham in his book Why Don’t Students Like School? (2010).  Willingham surmises that much of how we expect our students to learn in a classroom relies on conscious, exertion-intense thinking, not the natural, intuitive kind that our brains have evolved to be best at.

A central way that our brains avoid over-exertion (and therefore reduce our cognitive load) is through the use of schemas.  A schema is a cognitive framework that helps us organize and interpret information.  In simple terms, this means that the brain builds up internal frameworks of expectations.  This, on the whole, is incredibly helpful. 

Imagine, for example, if every time we walked into or through a familiar place our brains had to re-compute everything that was there and reinterpret it as if it were new.  Our cognitive load is significantly reduced when we enter our lounge and everything is as we expect it to be. 

Despite their overwhelming usefulness (indeed, their necessity to our very functioning) schemas can cause us some difficulties.  These can relate to both the misinterpretation and omission of information.  Supposing, for example, you have a black cat that tends to sit in a particular place in your lounge.  If you come home from work one day and someone happens to have left a dark-coloured jumper where your cat often sits, you can most likely imagine the trick that your brain may play on you when you first enter the room: you will interpret the jumper as your cat.  You will also have a separate set of schematic stimuli that constitute ‘cat’ in your brain – the jumper, being of similar size and colour to your cat, will trigger at least some of these stimuli.  When coupled with its placement as part of a broader contextual schema, this ‘mis-recognition’ can be particularly powerful: your brain receives a number of signals that are consistent with your cat being on your sofa and, although it hasn’t received all of the necessary signals, to save you from thinking it simply fills in the gaps and assumes that the cat is present.

Indeed, it might even take a second or two for you to realize that the shape you are looking at is, in fact, not what you first assumed.  In this sense, you see what you expect to see, not what is actually there until your brain processes the finer details of the information on display and readjusts.

The second piece of cognitive self-deception – which many readers are likely familiar with - is the omission of information that does not fit with (or within) a particular schematic context.  This was beautifully demonstrated by one of the most well-known experiments in cognitive psychology: The Invisible Gorilla.  Conducted by two Harvard psychologists in 1999, participants were asked to watch a short video of people playing basketball; they were tasked with counting the number of passes made by the players in white shirts.  Unbeknown to the participants, midway through the video a man in a gorilla suit enters the frame and remains on screen for a full 9 seconds.  Following the video, participants were asked if they had seen the gorilla.  A full 50% of participants had missed it entirely.  To all intents and purposes it was invisible.   The devisors of the experiment termed the phenomenon ‘inattentional blindness’ – the brain is paying so much attention to see and process what it expects to see that it completely ignores information which does not fit with those expectations.*

The experiment has spawned a host of spin-offs both from its original creators and many others with an interest in cognitive function.  One of my favourites is Trafton Drew’s (2004) experiment involving radiologists at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Drew asked 24 radiologists to study a batch of CT scans from 5 patients.  Aping (pun intended) the original experiment, Drew added an image of a dancing gorilla to one of the scans in each batch.  Despite detailed analysis of each scan, only four of the 24 participants spotted it.  It’s worth noting that the gorilla was a whopping 48 times larger than the average lung nodule – something that radiologists are very adept at spotting as a matter of routine – yet still it remained invisible because (quite understandably) participants did not expect to see a dancing gorilla on a CT scan.  By tracking the radiologists’ eye-movements, Drew ascertained that half of them had looked directly at the gorilla but, for the vast majority of them, it had simply failed to register.  When Drew repeated the task with laymen who had no specialist medical training, not a single participant spotted the gorilla.

It seems to me that the findings of these experiments and the cognitive theories upon which they are based might go a long way towards explaining the maddening literacy difficulties of my pupil (and the countless others like him).

Many teachers will be familiar with a pupil making a number of spelling mistakes in an extended piece of writing with words that, if they were written discretely, the same pupil would spell correctly.  They will likely be similarly familiar with pupils making grammatical or structural mistakes within sentences when pupils are writing a multi-paragraph piece which they would not make if they were writing a discrete sentence.

It would seem they are concentrating so greatly on simply retrieving words from their head, attempting to put them into an intelligible order both within and between sentences and paragraphs, as well as on the motor skills necessary to transfer these words onto the page,that they experience significant cognitive strain - for the weakest writers, we might even say cognitive overload.  Their exertion is so great that errors in their writing are inevitable.  The fact that they are paying so much attention to the multitude of micro-tasks necessary for them to produce the written word seems to leave them prone to a kind of ‘active’ inattentional blindness – pupils require so much concentration just to put pen to paper that they fail to recognize the gorillas of their own creation.

And this blindness holds true not only when they are in the act of writing, but when they are reading their work back to themselves.  It occurs even when they are, on the surface at least, actively looking for errors. 

The fact that pupils fail to spot their own mistakes would appear to be a classic piece of schematic deception.  Our learning and appreciation of language rely as much on schemas as anything else.  Thus when pupils read their work back to themselves they do not necessarily see what they have actually written – or at least, they see it, but do not accurately process it.  Their brain interprets what they have written based upon their schematic understanding of linguistic structures: they have been repeatedly exposed to correctly constructed written language and their brains have developed a set of expectations for what this looks like.  The consequence is that when they read their own work their brains deceive them into thinking that what they have written conforms to their schematic expectations of correct written language, even when it does not. 

The idea that inattentional blindness occurs when self-checking a piece of writing is hardly anything new; it is, after all, why publishing houses have professional proof-readers.  But in my years of teaching I have not once heard it discussed amongst English teachers and I certainly don’t recall it ever being mentioned during teacher-training which would suggest that many remain ignorant of the phenomenon.  I suspect that it is, at the least, due a little more consideration than it is currently granted.  Where school-age (particularly teenage) learners are concerned, I also suspect that the depth of this ‘blindness’ is deepened by a kind of confirmation-bias. 

A number of studies have shown that students, particularly boys, have a tendency to perceive their own academic ability as higher than it appears under objective assessment.  If pupils perceive themselves as competent writers (irrespective of whether they actually are) it follows that their brain is less likely to expect to see errors.  In this sense, it is likely that students may also selectively - although subconsciously - ignore mistakes in an attempt to maintain the security of their self-esteem as a learner.  Perhaps this natural over-confidence can even influence learners’ schematic frameworks for their own language production thereby compounding their inability to identify their own errors even further.  

This is likely to account for some pupils’ maddening resistance to acknowledging their own mistakes.  Many teachers will be all too familiar with the frustrating irony that weaker pupils (who are naturally more error prone) are also far less likely to admit their mistakes when they are dutifully pointed out to them.  Their desire to preserve a positive sense of self and of their own ability level in the face of evidence to the contrary can be infuriating but fits neatly with Festinger’s (1957) theory of cognitive dissonance. 

Festinger claimed that we have powerful motives to maintain ‘cognitive consistency’ which can cause apparently irrational and even maladaptive behaviour.  Festinger’s initial experiment involved interviewing members of a cult which believed the Earth was destined to be destroyed by a flood.  Festinger investigated what happened to its members when the flood did not occur.  The more fringe elements of the group were more likely to recognize the errors in their beliefs but committed members were found to make all sorts of leaps of unreason to explain away the world’s survival without questioning their core beliefs (principal amongst these, of course, was the view that the Lord had taken mercy on the world on account of the group’s great faith).  Apart from explaining why such groups as the Seventh Day Adventists are still going strong despite incorrect predictions of the second coming dating back to 1844, I suspect that Festinger’s ideas might also help further explain why some pupils seem to find identifying and correcting the mistakes in their writing so intractably difficult.

If a pupil holds the belief that they are more intelligent and/or a better writer than they actually are, when they are made aware of their mistakes many of them are likely to enter a kind of denial.  Often this takes the form of excuses or an abdication of responsibility which, frankly, can border on abject lunacy.  I recently observed a colleague point out a spelling mistake in a pupil’s title.  The title had been copied from the board in a previous lesson.  The pupil’s instant response was: ‘If I copied it then it’s your fault.  You wrote it on the board wrong.’  Only when my diligent – and remarkably self-controlled – colleague had shown this young lady the books of three other pupils in which the title had been copied down correctly did she accept that the mistake was hers.  This kind of thing is, of course, more common amongst more challenging pupils whose sense of self is either extremely fragile or (usually as a consequence of compensatory over-inflation) far superior to objective reality. 

So how do we sort this stuff out?

Ideally, the most successful response should have the effect of re-structuring the way pupils think when they write and, of course, when they check their own work. What you’re hoping to do is to prod the pupil into a quick piece of meta-cognition that forces them to effectively re-set their schematic framework for how they perceive their own writing.  This, in turn, makes them more likely to expect to see errors in the future and hence be more likely to spot and correct them.  If carefully managed, pupils then become more conscious of their tendency to make errors when in the actual process of writing; consequently, they rebalance their cognitive load towards how they are expressing themselves as opposed to what they are expressing.  This, over time, makes them less likely to make errors in the first place.  

The key to all generating this progress is feedback and, dare I say it, some really good Assessment for Learning (the kind that’s as rare as unicorns in Skegness and actually does something useful…). 

First of all, when you are looking at errors in a piece of pupil’s writing, have a think – which errors are a result of gaps in knowledge and which are a result of inattentional blindness?  It’s important to delineate between errors that require teaching to be corrected and errors that require seeing.  The errors with high-frequency words or common structures that you are confident pupils have been taught (in some cases repeatedly) are most likely to fall into the latter category.  These mistakes have become embedded blind-spots and they are the first weed that you should aim to uproot.

The simplest way to begin this process is with your trusty highlighter.  Rather than correct pupils’ errors for them, simply highlight them.  Then leave your pupil a brief comment which actually makes them think and engage with whatever mistake they are making: ‘What’s the problem with the highlighted areas?’ seems to work well for me.  If the error was a result of inattentional blindness, pupils are able to respond to the comment by identifying the specific error that they have made; if they can't respond, there's an obvious knowledge gap that needs filling.  A nice follow-up question is: ‘How many of these errors have you made?’  Simply getting pupils to count the number of times they have repeated the same mistake can be powerful in itself and help to pierce any of the latent self-defence mechanisms which ultimately obstruct their learning.  It also provides the pupil with a very easy way of tracking how their writing is becoming more accurate since, in their next piece, you will require them to aim for fewer errors.  

This process yields particular fruit when you can demonstrate the same error being made over a number of pieces of work – to paraphrase the Lord and Master of edu-research, John Hattie, this makes pupils' mistakes visible in a way that simply correcting their work does not.  It’s also vital to make sure that your pupils respond to your questions in writing so as to ensure engagement with them.  This can be onerous at first but, with a little training, most kids enjoy this process and find it surprisingly enlightening.  Of course, they especially enjoy it when they are able to self-track their improvements which, if the process is implemented consistently, can be rapid.  The boost to pupils' self-analysis and meta-cognitiion skills also bears subsequent fruit.

It's easy, and, most comfortingly given the ingloriously mangled slew of pseudo-psychological teaching strategies that have been inflicted upon us in recent years, it actually bloody works.**

* Pedant's corner: I find the term 'inattentional blindness' somewhat irksome as it seems to be a double negative - surely 'attentional blindness' would be more accurate since the subjects were actually paying attention, they just couldn't see what was really happening.  
** For some excellent debunking of said pseudo-psychological approaches to teaching, see Make It Stick (Brown, McDaniel and Roediger, 2014); for some regular psych-teach fodder get over to learningspy.co.uk (although, if you're reading this, you probably already have)

3 June 2015

Empathy, Behaviour, Excuses and Reasons

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (1943) - often used to explain poor pupil behaviour
and educational underachievement.
I have taught two children who were killed by other children.   One was stabbed and one was shot.   I have taught children who have killed other children.  I have taught a number of children that have been stabbed.  I have taught a number of children who have stabbed other children.  I have taught one child who said he 'couldn't remember' how many people he'd stabbed. I have taught children who have been convicted of rape.  I have taught children who have been abused.  I have taught a child who believed a small person lived inside their head and gave them instructions. I have taught a number of children who have battled suicidal thoughts.  I have taught one child who attempted suicide but did not quite succeed. I have taught children who have had to be educated in high security units.  I have taught children who have had to be forcibly committed to mental health institutions.  I have, by necessity, wiped the arse of a child with severe special needs when taking him on a day trip to a theme park as he had made a bit of a mess of it.  In my lunch break, I have pulled pupils out of a gang fight involving metal chains and shovels on a nearby building site and walked straight back into a classroom of kids, still shaking. I have taught children who have pushed me and told me to 'shut the fuck up'.  I have waited at an airport for 4 hours with an Autistic child because he refused to leave the model plane shop. I have been elbowed in the face by a pupil and carried on teaching.  I have taught children who hear voices that tell them to 'do bad things'.   I have taught children who've been arrested for so many different things that I can't remember them all.  I have taught children who have held guns to other children's heads and then, the next day, broken down in tears and told me all about it.  I have taught children who have spat on other teachers.  I have talked a child down from a window ledge. I have taught children who wear bullet proof vests after school.  I have taught children whose parents have stabbed each other.  I have taught children whose mothers are prostitutes.  I have taught children whose family members are in jail for serious crimes.  I have taught children who have suffered enuresis in class on account of early childhood trauma.  I have taught children who have hidden under and thrown desks.  I have had a gang member run into my school and threaten to 'shank' me.  I have taught children whose parents have died of AIDS and cancer.  I have taught children whose parents care so little for their education that the children turn up to parents' evenings on their own.  I have taught children whose parents have had to be restrained by the police.  I have taught children whose siblings have been killed.  I have taught a child who was arrested for possession of an automatic weapon.  I have taught children who are pregnant and a whole class of teenage mums (with their babies).  I have taught children who arrive at school most days stinking of weed.  I have endured the biting, scratching and kicking of a child for weeks on end until we got his therapy programme right.  I have taught children who have looked at female members of staff and said 'she needs a good raping'.  I have taught children who have groped female members of staff.  I have taught children whose parents tell them that they are possessed by evil spirits. I have taught children whose parents are known drug-dealers.  It stands to reason that I have taught children who have been carrying knives in my classroom.  I have taught children from families of 9 that live in 2 bedroom flats.  I have taught children who have threatened to 'bitch slap' me.  I have taught children who 'knock people out for fun'.  I have taught children who whisper to me after class that they won't be in on Tuesday because they have 'another court date'.  I have taught children who suddenly disappear from school and then appear on the news some time later.

I have taught children with Autism, Asperger's Syndrome, Attention Deficit Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties, Oppositional Defiance Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Depression, Schizophrenia, Developmental Delay, Global Delay, Moderate Learning Difficulties, Severe Learning Difficulties, stutters, stammers and all manner of Speech & Language Difficulties, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia and Dyscalculia.  I have taught children with all manner of physical disabilities.

I've lost count of the number of after school classes I've taught. I've lost count of the number of 'holiday' classes I've taught.  I've lost count of the number of Saturday classes I've taught and the Sundays are totting up.

I have been leapt on by a group of ex-students at a bus-stop and bundled to the ground.  My fellow bus passengers thought I was being mugged.  When I stood up the kids mock-worshipped me for getting them all to Cs and Bs in their GCSEs.  When I started teaching them at the beginning of year 11 they were all on E grades.  Not one of them had completed any of their coursework.  In our first class, one of them said: 'there's no point Sir, we're all going to fail…'  He was living in care and going through a spate of arrests.  He got a B in English Language and a C in English Literature. I've been telephoned by students on results day who harassed the school secretary into phoning me so they could all shout their grades down the phone at me, thank me through the medium of song and tell me they'd got their college places.  I have been hugged in the street by students that I no longer even recognise.  I have had students that I don't even know tell me that they hear I'm a 'sick teacher' and that I 'go deep with the learning'.  I've had students hold photocopied pictures of my face up on their pens in assembly when I was leaving a school.  I've got set 3 better results than set 2.  I've had a seriously troubled student come back aged 20 to see me and say: 'I just wanted you to know that I'm not a dickhead anymore, Sir'.  I've had parents send me cards that say 'thank you for believing in my son'.  I've had a child give me a card that read 'I love you Sir (not homo tho)'.  I've had kids who've come out and been beaten up by their own families say: 'thanks for your support, Sir'.  I've had kids say: 'thanks Sir'.  A lot.  I have been stalked by kids in corridors and playgrounds begging me to teach them.  I have had cards that incredibly challenging students have been secretly working on in the art department in their lunch times 'for weeks'.  I have had cards that say: 'you've influenced me more than you think, Sir'.  I've watched parents well-up with pride when I tell them how well their child is doing.  I've had students from the most challenging of backgrounds tell me 'you're not funny Sir!' whilst failing to suppress an enormous grin.  I bumped into a hardened gang kid whose attendance was so poor that I used to send his work home and harass his mum to make him do it and bring it into school.  I used to address the envelopes 'Snugglepops' just to wind him up.  He said to me: 'One word, Sir: uni!' and pointed at his chest.  I've had kids say: 'I have to behave for you Sir because if I don't you'll kill me.  And your eyebrows will do that weird thing...'.  I've had kids draw me cards with my eyebrows doing that weird thing (complete with annotations: 'angry face - like everyday!!!').  I've had kids forget themselves in a lesson, notice me looking their way and put their hands in the air in surrender because they know what's coming.  I've had kids say 'why are you so on my case, man?!' and a thousands variations thereof more times than I can remember and every single one of them has wanted me to teach them.  I've had a kid who I battled and battled and battled with to get to behave hold his results papers, look at me in bewilderment at his achievement and say: 'I'm not gonna lie Sir, we would've been screwed without you…'  It was the same kid who told me there was no point.

If Maslow has taught me anything, it's that he can be proven wrong.

The idea that insisting on the highest possible standards of behaviour and refusing to accept excuses for classroom idiocy engenders (or is predicated upon) some kind of dispassionate robo-teaching or a callous, humourless, unfeeling school environment is the absolute falsest (and most damaging) of false-causalities.  The hardships of children's lives are not excuses to indulge them in failure: they are motivation to force them to succeed.  Insisting on discipline and punishing pupils when they do not meet your standards does not show a lack of empathy - empathy is the very thing that drives that insistence in the first place.

The standard response that there is a difference between 'reasons' for poor behaviour and 'excuses' is moot on the whole. Everyone is well aware that there are reasons, some more reasonable than others. Either way, the learning culture of the classroom must remain sacrosanct if education is to yield the socially transformative potential that it so uniquely possesses.  Even if this sanctity is not born of empathy but by a simple determination to just  teach and sod the rest of it (a pretence I often use), the outcomes are similar in the hands of good practitioners: kids feel secure and they learn.  Which for some, is a pretty significant transformative step in its own right.  Ironically, and albeit only within the micro-community of the school, it is actually rigid behavioural boundaries that help provide the very foundation of Maslow's hierarchy: once sustenance and shelter are taken care of, the second block of his famous pyramid is marked Safety, without which love and belonging, self-esteem and self-actualisation are all compromised.

Of course, there are mitigating circumstances on occasion but, barring the most extreme, the 'no excuses' approach to behaviour holds firm under scrutiny.  The minute 'reasons' are used to justify limiting or reducing sanctions, then the morph into an excuse culture is so psychologically tempting that it becomes inexorable, especially where large proportions of the student body have lives filled with reasons for their disengagement, aggression or violent conduct.

But the very best teaching of the most challenging pupils is not really about 'empathy' anyway. It is, I suspect, about love.  And love isn't always about understanding; it's about doing what's right.  My classroom is the most benevolent of dictatorships but it is, and shall remain, a dictatorship nonetheless.

20 May 2015

Symptoms and Causes…

Nicky Morgan has fired her first salvo. And her first point of attack is not teachers, but Heads. 

According to Nicky, one of the 'big priorities' of her new government will be 'to speed up the process for tackling failing schools'. The first step, she states, will be to 'take new powers to step in from the moment that a school is found to be failing'.  Nicky’s plan is to ensure that failing heads (and probably a fair few of those insouciant ‘coasters’ too) will be required to work with a team of ‘expert’ leaders, including other, more successful heads. They’ll be given some time to implement the recommended changes; if they fail, their school will most likely face academisation and they shall be unceremoniously deposed.  Schools that 'aren't able to demonstrate a clear plan for improvement will be given new leadership'.  In short, ship up or ship out.

The controversies of academisation aside, so far, so fine to most people in education of rational mind.  I have some significant reservations about an ex-corporate lawyer assuming the mantle of leader of the educational vanguard (can you imagine a Harris / Ark merger… Christine Blower would probably actually explode) but let's make no bones about it: there are some poor Head Teachers out there that run poor schools.  For the good of the kids - and in many cases the staff - they need to improve their leadership or they need to go. 

The problem is that all this talk of fixing what’s broken in educational leadership seems to obfuscate the real question: namely, why is it so broken in the first place? According to government stats, there are over 3000 schools in the UK that are currently either outright failing or languishing in a culture of stagnated results where room for improvement is (allegedly, at least) clear.  It must be said, too, that this is hardly a new problem - see this from as far back as 1995 or this from 2007.  

Simply put, being a Head Teacher is a job that nobody wants.  Indeed, not only is it difficult to attract top quality candidates for headship positions, it is proving increasingly difficult to attract anyone at all.

A poor primary Head was, very righty, ousted from post in my local area recently, leaving a perfect opportunity for an aspirational young Deputy to take up the position.  For a more experienced candidate, the role should have been equally appealing: remuneration for the size and nature of the school wasn’t half bad and it appeared an eminently manageable job.

So the governing body advertised.

After a month, the first advert had not received a single response.  

So they readvertised.  After another month, the second advert had not received a single response.  

At the third time of asking they gave up and were forced to accept the local authority’s imposition of an executive ‘Super Head’.

For £75, 000 per annum for a role that was ostensibly very appealing, they couldn’t muster even one, solitary candidate for the post in a full three months of asking.  In the local context, this is hardly surprising: average applications for Headship positions in the area currently stand at a paltry 0.8 per role.

But when you look at the state of the profession in general, this too should come as little shock – the latest statistics indicate that a record 49,373 qualified teachers left state schools in the 12 months between November 2013 and November 2014.  That’s around 4000 teachers walking out every month.  And these are not union statistics – they are the DfE’s very own.  Not exactly the stable platform upon which great leaders can thrive.

So Nicky, I’m afraid the secret is out: teaching isn’t quite the utopian land of perpetual learning joy inhabited by the second-rate Gap models who seem to grace all Teach First adverts. It’s a bloody tough place. 

To be quite frank, for most of society’s brightest, teaching has about as much appeal as the thought of your predecessor in a thong.  So demanding is the role in schools with particularly challenging catchments, or where the more ludicrous work-place demands of academisation are rife, that teaching in these schools is a form of masochistic altruism that will only appeal to the most hardened of educational crusaders or sniveling careerists.  Throw in a culture of interminable top-down targets and a creeping culture of 'results at all costs' (which is the reality of the politicians' euphemistic weasel-phrase, 'no excuses') and most people with a semblance of self-regard would not touch these jobs with a barge pole.  If they do, they soon realise the damage being done to them and vote with their feet.

So here’s the thing that must be understood: poor educational leadership is not so much causal as symptomatic of a wider and deeper malaise at the bottom of the teaching pyramid. It is little wonder that there remain issues at the profession’s peak when there are so many more at the base through which leaders must necessarily ascend. 

As such, addressing the problems of inadequate Head Teachers is at best a piece of a much larger puzzle.  At worst, it is mere political window dressing.  Short term, if we are to provide the conditions conducive for leaders to effectively lead, we must ensure that those over whom they preside stop leaving the profession in such wilful droves.  Longer term, if we are to create lasting change and imbue the profession with the consistently high-quality leadership that many of our schools so desperately require, there must first be a discursive shift in how the teaching profession is viewed by wider society.  Of course, all of this will necessitate a perquisite shift in the nature of the job as it currently stands or this hierarchy of problems would not have come into existence in the first place: until the job of teaching becomes more attractive, the leadership conundrum will endure.  Executive Heads, Outstanding with a capital 'O' though they may be, are a poor substitute for good Head Teachers on the ground in all schools which, one would hope, is not too much to ask.

It is this shift, and how to facilitate it, that constitutes Nicky Morgan’s most pressing challenge.  There is no point calling for more wheat and less chaff if you can't get your seeds to stay in the ground for long enough to actually grow (or even get them into the ground in the first place).

10 May 2015

Whoever you vote for...

In celebration of the Athenian wisdom of our great nation, I will mark the resurrection of this humble corner of the educational blogosphere with with some wise words from our ex-glorious-leader, inadvertent (and strikingly successful) 'Pob' impersonator* and probable shadowy Nicky Morgan puppet-master for the next five years:

Children themselves know they are being cheated. Ultimately we owe it to our children. They are in school for 190 days a year. Every moment they spend learning is precious. If a year goes by and they are not being stretched and excited, that blights their life...

Of course, Michael didn't need anything like a 190 days to blight the lives of this lot (probably took them about that long to recover, mind):

The blissful effortlessness with which he so masterfully undermines himself is almost charming…  Ironically, despite the glaring exposure of Gove's patronising hubris, this is likely one of the few moments when even his most ardent detractors feel a pang of empathy for the man, perhaps, dare I say it, even a little pity.  We've all been there at some point. Granted, most of us in 'the blob' are generally blessed with oratory skills that are marginally less on the crushingly soporific side, but we've all been there: engaging kids and getting them to listen can be tough.  

So the point of this resurrectory post is not to indulge in some wanton, retrospective Gove-bashing.  In fact, there are a number of Gove-ist initiatives which I happen to think were bloody good.**  Nor is the purpose of this post to ruminate on what the immediate future might hold under his successor and our new political landscape.  Rather, it is to take a moment to reflect on the fact that another general election has passed and, as is customary, the piper of pedagogues has a sum total of - excuse the hypocritical Labour contract pun - zero hours teaching experience… 

It is to take another moment to ponder why the teaching profession continues to languish in such a dual mire of intellectual disrespect and professional ignorance on the part of the political class that it is still deemed appropriate for those with no experience of the job itself to preside over the direction of the entire profession.  Indeed, if Gove's dazzling display of oratorial ineptitude above is anything to go by, not only are our Education Secretaries unwilling to engage with the most basic realities of classroom life, they are unable to muster even a semblance of hope that they might actually grasp much of what the job entails (i.e. CPD point 1: definitely don't bore your class half to death…)

Whatever your political persuasion, it is a sad, and frankly ludicrous, state of affairs.

Current incumbent to the post, Nicky Morgan, spent a decade as a corporate lawyer before embarking on her political career.  I've spent nigh-on a decade teaching kids and managing local-level education initiatives.  I'd like to think I'm pretty good at what I do.  But the thought of me lending a hand in a corporate merger is comedically absurd.  Worse still, imagine if I was granted national responsibility for determining the legal framework for all of Britain's corporate activity?

Bit insulting to corporate lawyers, wouldn't you say?

To paraphrase the old anarchist slogan, it would seem that whoever you vote for, the Secretary of State for Education still gets in.  And they generally won't have any direct experience of actual education.

* If you're young enough to have no idea who Pob is, have a little search - a life changing insight into 80s Britain.  Hopefully he won't be tainted by Operation Yew Tree...

** The Year 6 Spelling Punctuation and Grammar (SPAG) test, for example, was (and remains) an excellent piece of Gove-ist reformation.  For someone who has spent 8 years teaching 15-year-olds how to use full-stops, the need to raise standards of literacy was glaring and profound, particularly in Britain's most deprived communities where education should be doing its most transformative work; Gove's move to formalise the teaching of grammar in primary schools may not have been popular but it was plainly right for generations of children.

6 January 2013

Wu-Tang Forever...

British rapper Akala's TED Lecture on the parallels between Shakespeare and hip-hop.   Almost certainly more interesting than another blog post from me.  Check out the Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company who do school visits and workshops here. 

Next week, my own lecture on Chaucer and Gangnam Style...