I wrote a blog this week. That’s nothing new, I’ve been blogging quite a lot since I decided to get into teaching. My blog is a personal, diary-like account of my experiences and thoughts, documenting my journey. It’s an opportunity to also network with and learn from other people in education. I usually get a handful of readers for each blog, and the occasional retweet.
I didn’t think this week’s instalment would be any different. I wrote about my visit to the amazing Michaela free school in Wembley. Lots of people before me have visited and sung its praises, so I didn’t think my contribution would attract particular attention except a “like” or two from the Michaela teachers. I was not prepared, therefore, for the Twitter storm that followed.
Perhaps I was unwise to mention certain people by name. A threat of legal action against me for defamation is not something I want to read about during my lunch break at school. Needless to say, the rest of my day was rather fraught with anxiety. How vicious the world of education can be! Why such bullying tactics?
I’m not into ad hominem attacks on people, but those two names just sprang up in my mind when I thought of the wall of critical resistance against those traditional principles of education espoused by Michaela school. It wasn’t, as was claimed, an allegation that the person had criticised the school specifically, but a criticism of a general attitude against those traditional principles, such as “no excuses”.
So, I am chastened. I will have to be a bit more circumspect in future. However, I will carry on blogging because my truth needs to be said. I am in a position of relative strength at the moment because I’m not financially reliant on the meagre LSA’s salary I earn. I take particular care not to name my school when I write but there is a freedom in being able to speak out in my blog about what I see. In any case, I’ll be starting at a new school in September for my Schools Direct teacher training. It may be then that I scale back on the honest, “warts and all” approach.
I have just returned from a much anticipated visit to Michaela Community School in Wembley. I had expected to be impressed but what I didn’t anticipate was the degree of emotion that the visit would engender. Sitting on the tube train on my journey home, I scribbled feverishly in a notebook my impressions, writing them all down while they were still fresh in my mind. Half way through, however, I had to stop. My hand was shaking and I suddenly realised why. I was angry, furiously so.
The reason for my rage is this. I watched children today whose ethnic and socio-economic background is nearly identical to that of the children at my own school, which is in a deprived inner city ward of London, rife with gangs. These could be “my” kids; and yet they were nothing like them. They were transformed. The children at Michaela were mature, polite, knowledgeable and confident, so unlike the sullen and disrespectful pupils that I will be seeing again tomorrow morning. And so I feel anger on behalf of my rude and disaffected pupils. Why are they not also getting the life changing opportunities that are on offer at Michaela? Why is such an education the preserve of the lucky few who just happen to live in the right catchment? Why, when the evidence is so overwhelming, are so many school leaders digging their heads in the sand and refusing to learn from what Michaela school, and others, are managing to achieve? All because of ideology and politics.
I remember when I first heard of Michaela school through my Twitter feed, I was intrigued and wanted to find out more about what they were doing. I wrote an email to my line manager, attaching a link to an article by Tom Bennett describing his recent visit, and asked if anyone from our school was planning to go. If so, could I also come along as part of my CPD? The next day, I got a reply. I was told that the Principal didn’t think much of Tom Bennett’s ideas and didn’t approve of the boot camp approach. For this reason, they would not be able to allow me to take time off to visit Michaela though, of course, I was free to do so in my own free time.
It’s not just the leaders of my school. On Twitter, I have encountered certain educationalists at every opportunity sneering at and denigrating the no excuses, high expectations approach espoused by Michaela school. And all the while, the most disadvantaged children in the country continue to suffer. Just stop, people, stop! There is a better way. Swallow your pride and open your eyes to the evidence that is right before you, if only you would see it. Discipline works. No excuses works. A focus on knowledge works. Explicit teaching works. Drills and tests work. And no, it does not kill off creativity or oppress children. Quite the opposite.
My visit today started with the family lunch. As I arrived by the lunch hall, I watched pupils from the first sitting quietly troop out. I was then invited in by Katharine Birbalsingh, Michaela’s head teacher, and asked to sit myself down at a table of my choosing. All the tables I observed were scrubbed clean and there was no sign of any food spills on the floor which you would expect to see whenever large groups of children eat a meal. Now, the pupils entered the hall, reciting a poem in unison. The ones at my table greeted me politely and immediately poured me a cup of water. Then we were addressed by Jo Facer, Michaela’s head of English. The topic for discussion today was about the general election and whether the voting age should be lowered to 16. We were to think of three reasons why it should and three why it shouldn’t. Then on the count of three, a pupil from each table went to fetch the food, laid out neatly on a tray, and proceeded to serve everyone on their table. This was all done with impressive efficiency. Once served, we discussed our topic. My table mates were year 8 pupils, who seamlessly started a conversation with me, speaking with confidence and listening intently to what I had to say. Think about it. Twelve year olds, talking politely and confidently with an adult they have never met. Impressive!
Before I knew it, lunch was over and it was time for appreciations. I had heard of these but seeing them was quite instructive. These are an opportunity for pupils to show their appreciation for someone, in accordance with Michaela’s ethos of “work hard, be kind”. When the time came for this, a sea of hands shot up into the air, asking to be picked for an appreciation. The pupils chosen then stood up, crossed their arms and said their appreciation, ending with two claps. A pupil at my table said an appreciation to his brother, who had taken away his phone so that he could do his homework without being distracted. Another pupil thanked a teacher for recommending a good book. What I hadn’t realised though, was that this was not just an exercise in kindness. The pupils were also judged on the quality of their delivery as well as the content. Had they spoken clearly and loudly enough? Had they expressed themselves in correct English? Was the appreciation sincere? If so, merits were handed out. If not, they were corrected, kindly but firmly. And then it was time to clear up the tables, which was all done quickly and efficiently before trooping out in silent, organised lines.
Another thing that surprised me during my visit today is the degree of freedom I was given to roam round the school, entering whatever classroom I chose to. I had assumed that I would be supervised and escorted around but that was not the case. I was a bit hesitant at first, not knowing where to go, but the teachers I met were incredibly friendly and helpful. Thanks by the way, to Jonathan Porter for pointing me in the right direction today.
So, what were the lessons like? These were my impressions:
Class sizes of approximately 30 pupils, with excellent behaviour. Pupils were quiet, put their hands up to ask questions and had to sit up straight and track the teacher when asked to (using SLANT).
I noticed a real consistency in the style of all the teachers I observed. The teachers had clear authority, they were firm and brooked no nonsense. This does not mean that they were humourless or unfriendly. Merits were handed out regularly for correct answers. Pupils who gave wrong answers were told, rather bluntly, “incorrect”. No sugar coating it with “good effort”.
Regular feedback was given, with teachers asking pupils to put their hands up if they got the question right. They would then ask pupils who got it wrong to put their hands up if they did not understand their mistake.
There were no group activities or any “engaging” games. The lessons I saw followed the curriculum set out in the booklet for each topic. This could be considered dry and unexciting. However, I noticed that everything was explicitly explained by the teacher, with a lot of call and repeat to make sure, for instance, that the pupils were pronouncing a difficult word properly. And, more importantly, the pupils kept their focus throughout the lesson. I have recollections of so many childhood lessons where I would have doodled on my book or day dreamed. None of this here. The pupils were paying attention throughout.
I liked the use of the visualiser, which worked just as well, if not better, than the interactive whiteboard we have at my school, but at the fraction of the cost. The classrooms were fairly low tech. No use of chrome books or other fancy equipment. This school is no frills and, I would hazard, much more economically efficient than mine.
My other overall impressions from my visit today were:
There is meticulous attention to detail. Nothing is left to chance. All school bags were deposited in neat shelves. The pupils had clear plastic wallets and were fully equipped with pencil case, pens and rulers etc.
All teachers are “on message”. I noticed, even in the playground, teachers on duty giving pep talks to pupils. The message and ethos of Michaela is continually reinforced.
Amazing artwork was displayed on the staircase, some of it of professional quality.
The children looked happy and secure.
In the time I was there, I witnessed only two demerits being given but an overwhelming number of merits.
The children are not just learning by rote. In a history lesson I observed, there was a great deal of critical thinking going on.
I know people have expressed concern about SEN pupils coping in the no excuses environment. I noticed two pupils today who had obvious SEN. They were treated with dignity and understanding, without lowering the bar of expectation.
Clearly, I was very impressed with what I saw at Michaela school today. My urgent wish is that the good practice I witnessed be spread to other schools, the sooner the better. Would Michaela consider becoming a teaching school, sending its trainees far and wide into the country? I hope so.
One last thing. I know some commentators have praised the school for what it can do for socially disadvantaged children but have been equivocal about its merits for middle class children. I have no such qualms. I’d send my son there like a shot.
On Tuesday, I had to take my 8-year old son with me to attend a meeting after school with our new acting principal. He brought along a book with him to read and was admonished to be quiet and well behaved, which thankfully he was. This was the first time I had brought my son to my workplace and the following day, several colleagues came up to me with fulsome praise for him. Naturally, this filled me with tremendous pride but on the back of this came the thought: “if only they knew how bloody hard it’s been to get to this point!”
Civilising a young child is not easy and often involves a battle of wills. I’ve lost count of the times my son has called me “meanie”, “the worst mummy in the world” or simply told me he doesn’t love me anymore. The last time I got on his wrong side, he looked at me crossly and said “you need to go to mummy school!” Thankfully, such episodes are becoming few and far between as he matures and learns how to moderate his behaviour. He is also, by the way, delightfully affectionate, more so now than when he was younger. Far from oppressing him, my discipline has liberated him. He is a happy and secure boy who feels loved.
No one I think would disagree that parenting involves putting boundaries and saying “no” from time to time – being “the bad guy”. Yes of course, encouragement and praise are given but there are going to be times when you have to be the adult and say “no”. It’s not easy to do this. You love your child and don’t want to see him unhappy. But you know, ultimately, that it is your responsibility to teach him the social skills he will need to live a contented and fulfilled life. I want my son to have good manners, to have self-control, to be kind and respectful to others, to be well-read and knowledgeable. I want to pass on my values to him and yes, I want to influence the way he sees the world. Does that mean I am brainwashing him and thereby oppressing him in some way? I don’t think so. As he grows up, he will increasingly get more freedom to choose what he wants to say and do. I hope that he will remember what we his parents have taught him and heed our advice but once he reaches adulthood, he will be free to follow in our footsteps or tread a totally different path. He will take with him the knowledge and habits we have instilled in him and make of them what he will.
One could approach this argument from the opposite perspective. What if I had not given my son boundaries, what if I had let him indulge in whatever habits he pleased? Would that not be considered a form of oppression? Surely that would be child neglect? We have a responsibility towards our children to teach them what we think is best. I’m afraid, the child doesn’t get to choose this, we do. We know better because we are older and more knowledgeable – and we were taught much of this by our own parents when we were children. Anyone who has read Lord of the Flies is aware of what chaos results from children being set loose without adult supervision. What we do as parents is a sort of benign dictatorship, not a democracy. We listen to our children, we care for their wellbeing but what we say goes. We are the boss, not them.
A similar argument can be put forward towards schools: they are not democracies but benign dictatorships. There are rules that pupils must follow. The teachers have authority. If a teacher asks pupils to write something in their books, then that is what they must do. Imagine if a pupil said “no, I want to have a chat with my friend right now”, what kind of problems would ensue. If we agree that teachers must have authority in schools, it is not much of a stretch to then agree that they should be the ones imparting knowledge not the other way around, and that this balance of power is needed, not to oppress but to liberate our children through furthering their education.
Why am I discussing this particular issue today? It is because I just read Martin Robinson’s blog entitled “The Problems with Traditional Education”. In it he discusses the philosophies of Dewey and Freire, and how they viewed traditional education to be oppressive. According to Freire:
Narration (with the teacher as narrator) leads the students to memorize mechanically the narrated account. Worse yet, it turns them into “containers,” into “receptacles” to be “filled” by the teachers.
Many of these ideas have percolated into the way teachers today view their role. Didactic teaching, where the teacher explicitly instructs the pupil, is considered to be not only a retrograde but a kind of fascist way of teaching. Better to have group work and activities where the pupils can feel a sense of agency rather than turning them into passive “receptacles”. This in turn feeds the idea that pupils will not learn unless they are actively doing something. Simply listening to the teacher will not result in learning. I have seen a few examples of this in year 10 history lessons at my school, where I think this approach is counterproductive. Here are two sets of activities we did in our last lesson that illustrate my point.
The activity: pupils were given a sheet with three columns, and a handful of questions at the top of each column. They were told to look at a page range in their textbook and use that information to answer the questions on their sheets within 20 minutes. To help them with their work, they were allowed to listen to music on their headphones.
My verdict: rather than explaining, discussing and shaping a better understanding of this topic through questions and answers, the teacher expected pupils to pick up the required knowledge from the textbook. The pupils in turn, were mostly successful at finding the correct answer in the textbook but instead of writing it in their own words (literacy being particularly poor) they copied the text word for word. In this instance, it feels to me that the teacher abrogated his responsibility to teach and allowed the textbook to do the teaching for him, all on the mistaken belief that more learning will take place if a task is undertaken independently. This kind of independent learning can occur but only when the people doing the reading are already experts, that is, they already have the skills needed to gather information, process it and formulate an answer in their own words. Finally, allowing the pupils to listen to music on their headphones while they worked sent out the message that we don’t have an expectation of them being able to work quietly, without the distraction of music.
The activity: the pupils watched a video of a documentary about Elizabeth 1st by David Starkey. They had a sheet with questions, the answers to which would be revealed in the documentary. The video was often paused, and even rewound, to allow the pupils to note down their answers. Many of the questions on the sheet would not make sense unless you were watching the video. So for instance, “why were the rebels surprised?” does not make sense unless you are following the narrative in the video.
My verdict: again, the teacher is letting someone else do the teaching for him, in this case, the eminent David Starkey. It points to a disturbing trend in history teaching, in line with the idea that you can look up facts on Google so don’t need to know them, where the teacher is no longer an expert in his subject and lets either the textbook or the academic on the YouTube video dispense the knowledge. The teacher is now more of a facilitator than a teacher. The other thing I noticed is that, by constantly pausing the video, the flow of the narrative was lost and the pupils were actually spoon-fed the answers so there wasn’t much effort or thought involved (and therefore very little likelihood of anything entering long-term memory from this exercise). If you are going to use a video documentary, then watch it all without pausing and then discuss with the class what has been learned.
I do not believe that traditional teaching – and by this I mean explicit teacher-led instruction that focuses on the transmission of knowledge – is oppressive. On the contrary, it is progressive methods, usually effective only when the student is already highly skilled (thereby favouring the more wealthy children in society) that are oppressive in the way they can reinforce societal inequalities. The ideology that says teacher talk is authoritarian and should be kept to a minimum has been very damaging to our students (as well as to our teachers who have been thoroughly de-skilled). In many instances, explicit instruction from the teacher is the most effective way of learning important knowledge. Far from being oppressive, this knowledge is empowering.
I will end with one last example. I have recently taught my son how to use a knife and fork to cut his food (for far too long we were relying on finger foods). I explained how to do it, and demonstrated how to hold the fork and how to cut with the knife. I watched him try it out and corrected his mistakes. Imagine if instead, I had given my son a knife and folk and said to him “go and independently work out how to use them”. I rest my case.
Today finds me in an introspective mood. Perhaps it’s the fact that my holiday is nearly over and it’s back to the gritty reality of school tomorrow. Or perhaps not. Those who have read my blogs may have the impression that I have strong and deep set views about education but actually, like many people, I am constantly beset by doubts as to the validity of my position. I read the comments and blog posts made by people with whom I don’t have much in common or with whom I tend to disagree, and sometimes, a point or a sentence here and there grabs my attention and forces me to re-evaluate. I also have a partner who often challenges my opinions and gives me new perspectives to think about. I think it’s fair to say, clichéd as it might sound, that I am on a journey.
If this opener has given you the impression that I have suddenly discovered myself to be a born again progressive, then let me disabuse you of this notion straight away. I still believe that didactic teaching, or as I prefer to say, explicit instruction, is on balance a more effective way of teaching than discovery learning. Nevertheless, I am uncomfortable with the binary way in which the progressive/traditional debate is being framed, as it sometimes feels to me as though complex issues are conflated into a simple argument. Everything is either black or white, with no grey area in between. I am particularly uncomfortable with the confident rhetoric that claims a return to traditional teaching will solve all our educational problems. It won’t. I am glad, though, to see the pendulum is shifting back in favour of more focus on knowledge as I can’t help but feel that there has been an inexorable dumbing down in education for the past decade or two. But swinging back the pendulum shouldn’t be the end of the story. There is much else to focus on and ponder.
The ones that got away
I read an interesting blog by Ed Podesta in which he talked about how he is sometimes haunted by “the ones that got away”. This seemed to strike a chord with many other teachers on my Twitter feed and I can understand why. Many of us enter teaching because we want to be a force for good, helping disadvantaged children overcome their disadvantages and forge successful lives. I myself am not immune to that kind of sentiment. Part of my decision to get into teaching was, I’m sure, prompted by a wish to do my bit and give back to society. But while teaching does have a public service element to it, I think it can sometimes be dangerous and counterproductive to get into that mindset of being a “saviour” of the poor children in society.
It puts too much pressure on teachers to perform and heaps terrible guilt on them when they perceive themselves to have failed a particular pupil. It also, more importantly, diminishes the pupil’s sense of responsibility for his or her learning. If a child’s lack of academic achievement is attributed primarily to the teacher and not to the child herself, what kind of message does that send? I failed my exam because you were a crap teacher, not because I didn’t listen in class and put in the necessary work. As teachers, we do need to have a reality check every now and then. Some kids, no matter how much effort you expend on them, will just not play ball. It’s not in our powers to “fix” everyone. As the saying goes, you can take the horse to the water but you can’t make it drink.
There is another issue here too, quite apart from teacher guilt and pupil responsibility. Sometimes, when we have a difficult or challenging pupil, we spend too much time focussing on them, trying different approaches to make them engage, and forget about the other pupils in class who are doing the right thing, trying hard but not getting the attention.
Since September, I have been supporting a Syrian girl who arrived here as a refugee last summer. I have been teaching her English one-on-one as well as supporting her in the classroom during other lessons. Initially I was filled with enthusiasm and a satisfying sense of pleasure at the idea of actively helping alleviate the suffering of someone affected by war, rather than watching ineffectually from the sidelines. My enthusiasm has dimmed somewhat over the last few months. She has made some progress, but teaching her is a rather unrewarding experience because of her extremely passive nature. She is not particularly hungry to learn. When faced with a slightly difficult problem, her standard response is to say she can’t do it and refuse to put in any further effort. She has quickly worked out that her teachers have zero expectations of her and that everyone is bending over backwards to make excuses for her, so she just doesn’t bother to put in much of an effort.
One day when she was absent from school, I made myself useful in the class and sat next to another EAL girl from Spain who, funnily enough, arrived in the UK at around the same time as the Syrian girl. This Spanish student has picked up English a lot quicker, probably because there is more in common between Spanish and English than between Arabic and English, but also because she is bright and proactive in wanting to learn. The Spanish EAL student doesn’t receive any additional support, compared to the Syrian girl who is literally smothered with support. That day, I redressed the balance and what a satisfying experience it was, having someone listen, respond and take heed of my instruction. What a pity that the rest of the time, this poor girl doesn’t get a look in.
We should be careful not to let our pity for someone’s plight, or frustration with someone’s lack of response to all our input, divert us from the ones who sit quietly in the background and are easily forgotten. At the end of the day, every person must tread their own path, make their own mistakes and deal with the consequences. Sometimes it is these very consequences that are the making of them. We can’t play God and think we are responsible for the success or failure of pupils (as long as we have reasonably fulfilled our duty as teachers).
Is traditional education prioritising the academic over the practical?
I also recently came upon Sue Gerrard’s blog, which gave a critique of Martin Robinson’s recent arguments regarding the differences between traditional and progressive education, with the former primarily subject-centred and the latter more child-centred. I was much struck by these two paragraphs:
“Recent events suggest that policy-makers who attended even ‘the best’ private schools, where cultural literacy was highly valued, have struggled to generate workable solutions to the main challenges facing the human race; the four identified by Capra and Luisi (2014) are globalisation, climate change, agriculture, and sustainable design. The root causes and the main consequences of such challenges involve the lowest, very concrete levels that would be familiar to ancient Greek farmers, coppersmiths and merchants, to mediaeval carpenters and weavers, and to those who work in modern factories, but might be unfamiliar to philosophers, scholars or politicians who could rely on slaves or servants.
An education that equips people for life rather than work does not have to put language and ideas on a pedestal; we are embodied beings that live in a world that is uncompromisingly concrete and sometimes sordidly practical. An all-round education will involve practical science, technology and hands-on craft skills, not to prepare students for a job, but so they know how the world works. It will not just prepare them for participating in conversations.”
I can’t help but see the truth in a lot of this. Was it not David Cameron, that intellectually brilliant Oxford PPE graduate, who insouciantly precipitated the uncertain times in which we live in? I see time and again, not just in politics but in other professions too, highly intelligent and intellectual people make rather ill judged decisions, unaware or uncaring of the impact they will have on ordinary people. This disconnect between the privileged rich and us more common mortals is brilliantly illustrated in this Guardian article about Steve Hilton. And let’s not forget Michael Gove, that soi-disant purveyor of clever phrases. Has his towering intellect given him a real insight into societal needs? Maybe not.
Focussing on knowledge as the foundation for critical thinking is important, but what kind of knowledge are we talking about? The best that has been thought or said, is usually the stock answer. Yes, knowledge of language, history, geography, literature, maths and science is crucial, but there is other, practical knowledge, which far too often gets forgotten in academically driven institutions. I myself received a privileged private education for which I am very grateful. But sometimes, I wish that someone had taught me how to change a car tyre or fix a punctured bicycle tyre. I wish I had learned how to use a power drill or how to grow vegetables and make compost. I wish someone had taught me about how to navigate the politics of office life and not let other, more extrovert colleagues, steal a march on me. This is not an exhaustive list by the way.
Yes let’s shout out about the benefits of traditional education, celebrate rigour, knowledge and discipline. Let’s not, along the way, forget that there is a whole lot more to education than the classic academic disciplines. Naturally, with school time in finite supply, it is not possible to learn everything, but it would be nice to have a truly rich and broad curriculum that takes into account those less than academic subjects. Does this mean I’m a traditionalist with a hint of progressive in me? Perhaps so.
Today, I read a fascinating exchange of ideas between Heather Fearn and Katharine Birbalsingh regarding grammar schools. It was refreshing to hear an alternative point of view to the usual one peddled about grammars: namely that they are full of middle class children and that they adversely affect the other children in the area by turning local comprehensives into secondary moderns.
Don’t get me wrong, I have much sympathy for that viewpoint and in fact, have first-hand experience of the predicament it describes. My stepson grew up in Kent and failed his 11-plus by a whisker. Had he had access to tutoring and the right kind of academic support at home, as is commonly the case in well healed middle class families, he would most likely have passed. However, instead of going to the grammar, he found himself enrolled at the local high school, where his academic output plummeted. He obtained a fairly dismal set of GCSEs and soon dropped out of sixth form to become a NEET (a young person “Not in Education, Employment, or Training”). He did eventually enrol at a college and got an engineering diploma, and is now gainfully employed, but it took him a while to find his feet and arguably, his job prospects and income have been negatively impacted.
So no, I am not an advocate for more grammar schools. However, I can understand why so many parents are desperate for their children to get into them. If I lived near enough to one, it’s quite possible that I would be too. This is why I find myself conflicted on the matter. On the one hand, I can see the negative impact they can have on communities. On the other, I can see that for the lucky few, they offer fantastic opportunities for a great education. In an ideal world, a great education would be within everybody’s grasp but this has yet to be achieved in over a century of public education and frankly, I suspect such a utopia is unlikely to ever be reached. Short of achieving educational nirvana, just what is it realistic to aspire to?
As Heather Fearn rightly points out, there are winners and losers in all the scenarios. We have already seen how socially disadvantaged children lose out from the “secondary modern effect” of having grammar schools in their locality but, in the absence of grammars, there is also another set of losers: those academically gifted children who are held back from achieving their true potential in comprehensives. Despite some notable exceptions, most comprehensives just don’t manage to develop enough of a critical mass to be strongly academic institutions. Whilst I think it is possible to talk about significantly raising standards in comprehensives, I doubt it is realistic to raise it, across a majority of schools in the country, to that high academic standard achieved in some grammars and independent schools. In order to do this, you would need to have high calibre teachers and leaders in all these schools, but there is a finite supply of such people.
Let’s take a look at the remarkable Michaela school, led by Katharine Birbalsingh. It is a non-selective school with a high percentage of children on free school meals, an indicator of social disadvantage. I have not yet had a chance to visit, but by all accounts, the school is a hotbed of academic excellence. It shows what can be achieved, without selection, when the right ethos is in place. When asked if the Michaela system could be replicated in other schools across the country, Ms Birbalsingh has emphatically stated that it could. Here, I would respectfully disagree with her.
There is a lot that can be learned from Michaela school, and I know that many teachers and leaders who have visited it have been inspired to make changes at their own schools. However, I don’t think it’s feasible to envisage a large proliferation of schools achieving Michaela’s standard. In many ways, Michaela is unique. Its leadership has an almost revolutionary zeal and that level of commitment and motivation is rare to find. The school has recruited a great many Oxbridge and Teach First graduates. Let’s put it this way. If you are academically average, you are unlikely to be employed as a teacher at Michaela. The problem is that there are just not enough of these academic A-listers to staff all the schools around the country and thus I would very much doubt that you could get a critical mass of high achieving schools like Michaela. At best, you would get clusters of excellence here and there, but not across the board.
Inevitably then, you will get winners and losers. And wherever there is an excellent school, be it a grammar or other type of school, you will find ambitious middle class parents muscling their way in. So what should we do? For starters, let’s stop trying to approach education through the prism of social mobility. Let’s just try to raise standards for all children, whether they go on to become lawyers or road sweepers. While not all comprehensives can reach the dizzy heights of top grammars, let’s raise the bar so that they don’t lag so far behind. Tackle behaviour, improve literacy, develop a rich curriculum.
At the same time, let’s accept that there is space for a variety of different options to be on offer, whether it’s faith schools, free schools or even grammars. What’s important is that such schools do not dominate an area. So for instance, if you were to have a grammar school in one area, you shouldn’t be able to open another one nearby or even within an x mile radius. Very bright, academic children, should have the opportunity to attend highly academic institutions, whether they are middle class or not (and I don’t think that middle class children are any less worthy). Surely that can be done without blighting the opportunities of other children.
The first week of my Easter holiday has flown by much too quickly. I have mostly lazed about at home, watched “Jane the Virgin” on Netflix, enjoyed afternoon siestas and done some gardening. Also, I have an 8-year old to entertain, so we have had a few play dates and budget days out – how does aeroplane spotting at London City airport strike you? In between all of this, I have found time to occasionally dip into my Twitter feed and keep up with all that’s happening in our education bubble.
As far as I can tell, there have been two main strands of conversation: Twitter trolling and the merits/demerits of Labour’s new policy on taxing private schools in order to fund free school meals for all primary school children. Here’s my take on these.
It never ceases to amaze me how disagreements over pedagogy degenerate into ad hominem attacks on the people who dare spout a contrary view. This inability to show respect to people with opposing viewpoints displays a lack of maturity and intellectual reasoning skills. I do agree with Anthony Radice on this.
This issue of trolling was highlighted in Andrew Old’s blog, together with sound advice on how to tackle the problem. I was also saddened to hear that Michael Fordham, who writes about education with such clarity and wisdom, has also been subject to Twitter abuse lately.
AdrianFGS, you are now blocked. I will not allow anyone who tweets personal insults on my timeline; I strongly suggest others follow suit and make clear that personal attacks are not to be tolerated in our discourse on EduTwitter.
Jeremy Corbyn’s great idea
Full disclosure here, I am not an objective critic as I would be adversely affected by this. My son has been accepted and will start at an independent school in September. I have been saving up for a few years to afford the fees and well, you can imagine that I’m none too pleased at the prospect of the goal post moving even further. Here’s the thing though. As a family, we already pay our fair share of tax, plus, by taking our son out of state education, we are saving the taxpayer money that would otherwise have been spent on my son’s school place. So here we are, already well out of pocket, but hey, at least it will go to a worthy cause. Oh, hang on a minute. The extra money will subsidise free meals for loads of middle class children. Sounds like a bit of an own goal to me.
Then of course, I am asked what I have against state education. The honest answer: for the most part, it’s not as good as private education. My son is not a social experiment. I want him to have the best possible education and in our case, this means going private. I make no apologies for this. In an ideal world, the best possible education would be available to all but unfortunately, we have not yet reached this utopia.
Interestingly, there was another related thread which touched on this issue. Mr Pink (@positivteacha) posted something to the effect that he hated his university experience because mixing with privately educated students made him feel out of his depth. I hadn’t been aware until now of the difference in attainment between state and privately educated students at university.
All of which leads me to say. State secondary education (with some honourable exceptions) still has a very long way to go. There is much work still to be done. I hope, in my small way, to contribute to this work when I start teacher training in September.
Last weekend I watched the debate held at the Global Education and Skills Forum entitled: “This House believes that 21st Century learners need their heads filled with pure facts”. Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, and Ark’s Daisy Christodoulou, speaking in favour of the motion, managed an impressive feat, winning the debate after initially getting only 20% of the audience’s vote.
The problem I identified, as did Nick Gibb, was the false dichotomy presented in the title, based on the idea that proponents of a knowledge-rich curriculum are only interested in filling pupils’ heads with facts and nothing else. This is a dangerously inaccurate representation of the debate, framing it in terms of a choice between rote-learning of facts and the teaching of higher order skills such as critical thinking.
As I listened to the speakers on both sides of the debate, I realised that actually, there wasn’t much disagreement about what they wanted to achieve, what we all want to achieve: capable, thinking, creative people who can rise to the challenges of the 21st Century. The differences occur in how each side proposes to reach this goal.
I have written before about the schooling I had in the early 1980s and about how copious reading enabled me and my peers to arrive at our lessons already well prepped for learning. The quantity of books I got through each month is pretty mind boggling by today’s standards. Without realising it, as I devoured each story I absorbed, osmosis-like, tons of knowledge about history, science, human nature, vocabulary and syntax. When we learned about the industrial revolution, it wasn’t totally new to me as I had already encountered aspects of it in Elizabeth Gaskell’s “North and South” and in Hector Malot’s “En famille” (I read in both English and French), and Dickens’ work meant I was already familiar with the poverty and social problems of the era.
Imagine, if you will, a situation where your classroom is filled with pupils who, like me, are widely read. Immediately, as a teacher, you are gifted with the following:
Pupils who are much more likely to stay on task and not to be disruptive. Why? Because in order to read, you need to be able to sit quietly for hours and focus.
Pupils with a high degree of literacy – you are thus able to set them complex writing tasks.
Pupils who will contribute knowledgeably to class discussion so that you can discuss a topic in greater depth.
In such a classroom, there is no need for rote-learning of facts – a lot of the base knowledge is already there. This is the classroom where critical thinking and problem solving happens. This is the classroom where so called “higher order” skills are developed, honed and sharpened.
Now imagine another classroom, one you are more likely to see today. It is filled with children who have not developed the habit of reading. These children have not yet learned how to sit still, how to listen, how to work quietly. They struggle to string together a single grammatically-correct sentence. Their vocabulary is poor and their knowledge is limited. How on earth do you propose, in such a classroom, to develop those higher order skills, when the “lower order” ones are not yet there? More likely than not, there will be low-level disruption too.
As I have discussed before, the challenge we face in today’s world is that we have children who for the most part, at home, spend their time glued to their computer screens or playing video games. They are exposed to fast moving action on their screens, constantly changing graphics and noise. Put these children in a classroom and they are going to struggle to sit still and focus their attention on the analogue world of textbooks or worksheets. From thence comes the perceived need to engage them with fun activities, colourful slides and videos. One thing I have noticed about the resources shared by many teachers on my Twitter feed is the amount of games and group activities that are involved. One blog even went as far as to suggest that we could engage our pupils’ attention by teaching them through the medium of a video game.
This puts me in mind of mothers who hide pureed vegetables in their kids’ pasta sauce in order to surreptitiously feed them their five-a-day. Through these “engaging” activities, the hope is that we can sneak in some educational nuggets here and there. My fear is that by doing this, we are exacerbating the problem rather than dealing with it. If we keep trying to make things fun, we are not addressing the main obstacle to the children’s learning: their inability to sit quietly and focus. At what point do we say, “enough is enough, these kids should be able to concentrate on their work by now”? Is it right that year 10s are still having to be spoon fed their curriculum through card sorting activities? What’s going to happen to these kids when they leave school, enter the workforce (if they find a job) and find they are unable to cope with the repetitiveness of it or the lack of fun activities? What will they do then? Have a tantrum? I think not.
So here we are, this is the challenge that we face. And here is where the two different schools of thought, knowledge-led/skills-led, diverge. The knowledge brigade is clear that we need to instil as much knowledge as possible, through extensive reading, knowledge organisers, drills and yes, even rote-learning, so that the pupils are able to tackle those higher order skills we all want them to develop. For this to happen, discipline and strong behaviour systems are also essential. The skills brigade would rather skip ahead to the end product and engage in project-based learning and to practice generic skills which they believe (erroneously in my view) can be transferred from one subject matter to another.
To say, as some do, that there isn’t really a debate to be had, that all teachers teach knowledge, is to miss the point. There is an ideological fault line. However, let’s keep well away from those misleading tropes about the mindless, rote learning of facts.
Nearly everything I read on my Twitter feed these days seems to be connected, in one way or another, to the knowledge versus skills debate that is currently raging in certain educational circles. I was initially rather bemused by it, thinking it strange that people should need to make a case for what seems to me to be the blimming obvious. Knowledge is good. Duh!
It has rapidly dawned on me though, that part of the disconnect for me is a generational one. It’s been nearly 30 years since I took my A-levels and the educational landscape has changed immeasurably since then. What was the norm in my day – didactic teaching of a knowledge-led curriculum – has become something rather contentious. When I talk about a knowledge-led curriculum, I don’t mean that we had to memorise lots of facts unthinkingly. I don’t remember doing much of that. I do remember the teacher, standing at the front of the class, giving us information which we would hastily write down in our exercise books (I had to learn shorthand pretty quickly), probing questions, class discussions, and writing up lots of essays that were then marked with a very critical eye. We were usually expected to read a designated chapter from the textbook before each lesson so that we came prepared to discuss whatever the topic was. There was real depth to our discussions too.
There never was any separation of substantive from disciplinary knowledge – the two went together. Yes we learned about lots of historical events but then we discussed different interpretations of these events, causal factors and tried to explain why particular decisions were made. The type of essay questions we were given almost invariably included discussing different interpretations of a historical figure or event. For example, questions like Examine the view that Edward the Confessor was too much influenced by Normans, or “Not one of the English rebellions during the early years of the reign of King William I seriously threatened his authority.” How far do you agree?
So, while there was a great deal of depth and breadth to our curriculum (what would now be called a knowledge-led curriculum), it was never rote learning or simply copying down lots of facts without thought or analysis. One thing we didn’t do, not even when I went to university, was to analyse original sources just for the sake of it. Naturally we had a look at the Bayeux Tapestry and text sources such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or Orderic Vitalis , we discussed the context in which the sources were written and implications for us as historians, but we never actually had to annotate a source and examine its usefulness for a particular enquiry or discuss what other evidence we would need to back it up.
From a personal standpoint, I don’t really get the obsession with source material in history as it is taught today. I know primary sources are critical for professional historians, who are undertaking research, writing articles in journals and publishing their works. I also know that very often, specialised skill is required to be able to read and understand these sources. If you watched the TV programme about 1066 currently airing on the BBC, you will have seen historian Mark Morris, wielding a magnifying glass and easily reading the Latin text which to us would be unintelligible. This is a very specialist skill, and not a particularly transferable one. Would Mark Morris be able to decipher an ancient Arabic scroll and tell us what useful information could be gleaned from it? Probably not. So while there needs to be a general understanding of how we piece together information about the past and the problems inherent in our approaches, I don’t think the “skill” of analysing sources should be overstated.
I get surprised when I hear other history teachers essentially describing their subject in terms of the ability to understand and analyse sources, as if that is what makes a historian. To me, history the subject, is all about stories of our past and piecing together our shared humanity, unravelling the complex web of events that led to where we are today. How our parliamentary democracy was born with the Magna Carta, which itself was the culmination of the reign of a greedy and incompetent king, whose powers in turn were the result of the unique circumstances following the Norman conquest of England. History is about understanding who we are and how we got here. That’s the real power and draw of the subject, not some abstract skill for analysing a source.
So, is there room for all our different approaches to history teaching to co-exist? Should we just agree to live and let live? While I would love to say yes, I do have some very serious reservations about the so called “progressive” approach, where skills are emphasised, often at the expense of substantive knowledge. I am sure most of my fellow colleagues blogging on Twitter, no matter where they stand in this debate, teach an awful lot of knowledge in their lessons. But I have seen the other side of progressive history education, and it’s deeply worrying.
I have seen teachers that are not expert in their subject, teaching the knowledge superficially, practically in bullet points. Today, in one history lesson, I heard the teacher talk about Elizabeth being “coronated” in 1559 (whatever that means) and another teacher repeatedly mispronounce the word “recusants” as “rescuants”. One task we had in class today was for the students to pair and share to discuss how Elizabeth should settle the problem of religion at the start of her reign. Most of them concluded that Elizabeth should just let people practice their religion freely (and then presumably everyone would live happily and freely side by side). This was the perfect opportunity for the teacher to explain why this was not possible in 1559, why Elizabeth needed England to be a Protestant country, how otherwise her legitimacy as the daughter of the union between Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII would be called into question. Of course none of this happened, as the lesson starter was quickly followed by a brisk look at the actual religious settlement – a sheet with a column each for the Act of Supremacy, the Act of Uniformity and the Royal Injunctions filled out with bullet points, without any particular depth of discussion. No wonder the students don’t particularly seem to engage with the subject when it is taught at such a shallow level!
Knowledge matters, not just in the curriculum but also within the teacher himself or herself. I hate to say it but what I am seeing is a dumbing down, a teaching of the basics needed to pass the exam but no deeper texture or meaning. I hope you would all agree that this is not the way forward.
There is a striking passage in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book “The signature of all things” – which I heartily recommend by the way – where the protagonist, a 19th century woman with a bent for scientific investigation, travels to Tahiti after having her heart broken. There, she searches for answers about the husband who deserted her. In the course of her stay on the island, she finds out the sad truth about her husband’s love affair with another man and his suicide. She also befriends the local Tahitian women but stands apart from them, her scientific, educated mind at odds with their local customs.
One day, however, she is forcibly dragged into the sea by them to take part in a ritual game called haru raa puu. The usually smiling and placid women turn into aggressive opponents in the water, pushing her down and making her fight for her life. This proves to be a life-affirming experience for Alma, as well as the light bulb moment in her research about mosses and why there are variations in the different species over time: what we would now refer to as the survival of the fittest (the novel uses artistic licence to argue that Alma discovered the theory of evolution years before Darwin did, but never had the courage to publish her findings). Here’s a fairly long excerpt from the book, describing the event:
“What happened next was an impossible thing: a complete halting of time. Eyes open, mouth open, nose streaming blood into Matavai Bay, immobilized and helpless underwater, Alma realized she was about to die. Shockingly, she relaxed. It was not so bad, she thought. It would be so easy, in fact. Death – so feared and so dodged – was, once you faced it, the simplest thing going. In order to die, one merely had to stop attempting to live. One merely had to agree to vanish. If Alma simply remained still, pinned beneath the bulk of this unknown opponent, she would be effortlessly erased. With death, all suffering would end. Doubt would end. Memory – most mercifully of all – would end. All her questions would end. She could quietly excuse herself from life. Ambrose had excused himself, after all. What a relief it must have been to him! Here she had been pitying Ambrose his suicide, but what a welcome deliverance he must have felt! She ought to have been envying him! She could follow him straight there, straight into death. What reason did she have to claw for the air? What point was in the fight?
She relaxed even more.
She saw pale light.
She felt invited toward something lovely. She felt summoned. She remembered her mother’s dying words: Het is fign.
It is pleasant.
Then – in the seconds that remained before it would have been too late to reverse course at all – Alma suddenly knew something. She knew it with every scrap of her being, and it was not a negotiable bit of information: she knew that she, the daughter of Henry and Beatrix Whittaker, had not been put on this earth to drown in five feet of water. She also knew this: if she had to kill somebody in order to save her own life, she would do so unhesitatingly. Lastly, she knew one other thing, and this was the most important realization of all: she knew that the world was plainly divided into those who fought an unrelenting battle to live, and those who surrendered and died. This was a simple fact. This fact was not merely true about the lives of human beings; it was also true of every living entity on the planet, from the largest creation down to the humblest. It was even true of mosses. This fact was the very mechanism of nature – the driving force behind all existence, behind all transmutation, behind all variation – and it was the explanation for the entire world. It was the explanation Alma had been seeking forever.
She came up out of the water. She flung away the body on top of her as though it were nothing. Nose streaming blood, eyes stinging, wrist sprained, chest bruised, she surfaced and sucked in breath. She looked around for the woman who had been holding her under. It was her dear friend, that fearless giantess Sister Manu, whose head was scarred to pieces from all the various awful battles of her own life. Manu was laughing at the expression on Alma’s face. The laughter was affectionate – perhaps even comradely – but still, it was laughter. Alma grabbed Manu by the neck. She gripped her friend as though to crush her throat. At the top of her voice, Alma thundered, just as the Hiro contingent had taught her:
TOA HAU A’E TAU METUA I TA ‘OE!
E ‘ORE TAU ‘SOMORE E MAE QE IA ‘EO!”
THIS IS ME!
MY FATHER WAS A GREATER WARRIOR THAN YOUR FATHER!
YOU CANNOT EVEN LIFT MY SPEAR!’
Then Alma let go, releasing her grip on Sister Manu’s neck. Without a moment’s hesitation, Manu howled back in Alma’s face a magnificent roar of approval.
Alma marched toward the beach.
She was oblivious to everyone and everything in her midst. If anyone on the beach was either cheering for her or against her, she could not possibly have noticed.
She came striding out of the sea like she was born from it.”
Why, you may ask, am I quoting the passage above and what could it possibly have to do with education? Before I answer, let me give you another vignette, gleaned from a “Good Morning America” video about China which we watched in a Geography lesson today.
In the video, we found out about all the goods produced in China, at very low cost in their factories and the effect this has had on local industries in America. There is a memorable interview with the author, Thomas Friedman, in which he says:
“There ain’t no such thing as an American job, ok, there’s just a job, and in many cases it will go to the most efficient, cheapest, smartest person who can do that job. You as an individual have to locate now increasingly globally and think of yourself as competing with people globally… My parents used to say to me, Tom, finish your dinner, people in China and India are starving. And what I tell my girls today is: girls, finish your homework, people in China and India are starving for your jobs.”
Do “survival of the fittest” and globalisation have implications for education? Before I go any further, let me just say that I am not for a minute advocating entering into a rat race with China and other Asian countries for just how hard and long we can make our students work. I do think though, that our child-centered education where pupils are taught a sense of entitlement and often given an inflated idea of their uniqueness, is at odds with the realities of the world out there.
I have been thinking a lot lately about how well-meaning actions often have unintended consequences. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the world of education which is filled with decent, caring people who want to make the world a better place. I like to think I am one of them. And yet quite clearly, despite our best efforts, far too many students are leaving school with few qualifications, poor social skills and weak literacy and knowledge.
I could talk about the unintended consequences of well-intentioned interventions on poorly behaved students and how the “some excuses” as opposed to “no excuses” approach to behaviour management has created a culture in which certain kids think they can get away with outrageous behaviour. It’s true that a lot of them are unhappy, unloved and worthy of our sympathy. So they get taken out of their classes and sent to us in the SEN department, where they get lots of attention and the added bonus of not having to sit in boring/challenging lessons. Of course they know that if their behaviour improves, they will be compelled to go back to their lessons. Instead, they let loose with every tantrum under the sun, knocking over displays, chairs and bins, kicking and banging on doors. And thus we go from one crisis to another, talking and complaining about so and so’s behaviour, but never acknowledging our collusion in it.
But our softly softly child-centered approach also has unintended consequences on other students. One of the students I support in my school is very well behaved, yet here too our well-meaning approach is having a detrimental effect on her. This student is a refugee from Syria, who arrived in the UK last Summer with very little English and huge gaps in her education. As I speak Arabic, I was asked to support her in classes and also tasked with teaching her English. In lessons, I sit beside her with my mini whiteboard, translating for her and supporting her as required. What has happened is that she has very quickly learned that none of her teachers have any expectations of her, so she sits back passively and puts very little effort beyond copying things off the whiteboard. Lately, I have started to wonder whether my presence in class with her is more a hindrance or a help.
This is where I am reminded of Alma, moping for her lost love, but jolted out of her complacency by having to literally fight for her life. Perhaps we should be removing the crutches and challenging our students to sink or swim. It may not be as high stakes as life or death, but let’s at least jolt them into fighting for their place in the world or, fighting to keep up with their classmates.
I’ll finish with this little example. Delving through my stash of old essays and school books, I found my English book from when I was in Lower 5th (the equivalent of year 10 today). This was my first year in an English school (as I grew up in Geneva and subsequently went to a French school in London), so English was very much a second language for me. Nevertheless, I had managed to write a three-page story entitled “The inheritance”. Did my teacher shower me with positive comments and encouragement in her feedback? Not a bit. One paragraph has her comment of “cliché” in the margin. And her final remarks put my work firmly in its place: “B+ This is accurate but I did not find it convincing. Do be careful with fantasy: this reads like something you have read and it does not make me believe in it. Try taking a simple incident from your own life as a basis.”
I have read with interest Michael Fordham’s recent blog posts about different approaches to history curriculum design and their problems. I must confess, as a newbie to the profession, to feeling more than a little overwhelmed by my unfamiliarity with a lot of the theories and concepts he mentions.
Being the kind of person I am, I often try to simplify complex arguments I read into clear and intelligible statements just so that I am able to make sense of it all. For this reason, I tweeted the following response:
I got to pondering, in my own small way, the implications of this. If there are no shortcuts to becoming good at history, if lots and lots of knowledge about different things is needed in order to be able to make analysis, inferences and form opinions, how on earth can we deliver this knowledge in schools given the limited hours available to teach it?
This was far easier to accomplish in my day because, quite simply, we read a lot. I remember a childhood filled with books, not because I was particularly erudite but because books were the only real source of entertainment available to me, the only escape I had from boredom. With no Netflix, no social media, no Google to look things up and no cheap travel, I lost myself in countless books and transported myself to exotic locations through the stories I read. I was not prescriptive in my reading. The only criterion was that it should entertain me. Thus I read Agatha Christie mysteries, Georgette Heyer romances, Jean Plaidy’s historical novels, as well as the anointed greats such as Jane Austen or Tolstoy. I remember spending an entire Easter holiday ensconced in my room devouring “War and Peace”. My mother despaired of ever seeing my face, I had to be dragged to the dinner table under duress because all I wanted was to continue reading this all-engrossing saga.
Again, I reiterate, I was not particularly scholarly. What I was doing was not uncommon in my time. I read about a book a day, but then so did many of my friends. My best friend would do a fortnightly trip to the library with her two siblings where each of them would take out 10 books and then share the 30 books between each other before going back for more. Without ever consciously realising it, we were accumulating that fingertip knowledge that Christine Counsell may have been talking about last week at the WLFS conference (I was unfortunately unable to attend). And so we came to our lessons already well briefed, well primed for the accumulation of more knowledge and for developing our writing and analytical skills.
The problem, as I see it, is how do we develop this knowledge with the current generation, living in the modern world full of distractions? My personal experience of trying to foster a love of reading in my 8-year old son demonstrates just what a challenge this is. By comparison with his contemporaries, my son is an able reader and has a wide and sophisticated vocabulary. By comparison with me at his age, however, he does not fare so well. How do we bridge this impasse?
I have read about Michaela school with great interest (and hope to visit in the not too distant future) and I know it garners a considerable amount of criticism, but one thing (out of many) that I admire is their utter commitment to getting their pupils to read as much as possible the great literary works in our canon. Perhaps what needs to happen, is for that process to start much sooner, in primary school. Imagine primary schools with the Michaela ethos, insisting that children read a whole load of great books before they finish year 6. Imagine this being a priority, embedded in the school day and curriculum. There is no other place for that reading to take place and schools have to acknowledge this. Realistically, children are not, in today’s world, going to read these books at home – they will be on their computers and game stations. The reading needs to happen at school if it ever stands a chance of becoming a habit.