Thursday, 17 December 2015

My Christmas Carol (#teacher5adaywrite)

Ideal Present

The always unattainable.
The ever aspirational,
Yet singularly rational.
The only way sustainable.

The Christmas wish original.
The season's own spiritual.
Past, present, future, urging us to our renewal.
Tenses stirring senses of recurrences eternal.

The past an absence immemorial.
The present feeling fleeting and ephemeral.
The future holding promise that the story has a moral.
To sleep. To dream. To grasp at the ethereal.

O innocence so elemental,
To wish for this, so immaterial,
To pray the prayers of yester yule,
To deny a world ungentle.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Some Day It May Happen (A Little List)

(After Gilbert and Sullivan.  Original can be heard here.)

And also Twitterists: I've got them on the list.

As someday it may happen that a victim must be found,
I've got a little list. I've got a little list.
Of education offenders who might well be underground,
And never would be missed. They never would be missed.
There's multiple intelligences, learning styles and thinking hats.
Emotional intelligence, indulging little brats.
And then there's brain gym, Opening Minds and everything like that,
Competency-led learning and kids just chewing the fat,
And teachers who on letting them find out themselves insist.
They'd none of them be missed.
They'd none of them be missed.

He's got them on the list.
He's got them on the list.
And they'd none of them be missed.
They'll none of them be missed.

There's SMSC, PSHE, Personal Development
Sex and relationships. I don't think they'll be missed.
There's character and discipline, British Values and Prevent.
Resilience and grit. I'm sure they'll not be missed.
Then Mickey Mouse qualifications, Media Studies and the Arts.
Who cares for creativity when you've got progress charts?
And Her Majesty's Inspector whose little sideline giving hints
To clueless senior managers is earning him a mint
And in his mind the lofty title: educationalist.
I don't think he'll be missed.
I'm sure he'll not be missed.

You may put him on the list.
You may put him on the list.
And they'd none of them be missed.
They'd none of them be missed.

There's bitter secret teachers who air laundry in the press.
And the futurologists. They never would be missed.
There's sour Secretaries of State who blame us for their mess.
Progs and traditionalists. I've got them on the list.
Then the techno-multi-billionaire with his philanthropic bent.
Who turns to education in denial his talents are spent.
And nasty middle managers whose teaching is the pits,
Who fill their observation sheets with huge and floppy... Ticks.
And who on close observance must be either stoned or pissed.
I'm sure they'll not be missed.
I'm sure they'll not be missed.

He's got them on the list.
He's got them on the list.
And they'd none of them be missed.
They'd none of them be missed

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

A Rational Curriculum (We don't need no education.)

What is education for? What a crap question.

Education's purpose: the perpetuation of power?
Education isn't for anything but survival.  Education isn't an outcome or a product; it's a tool whose only purpose is to enable individuals and cultures to self-perpetuate and to grow.  It isn't the sum of all that can be learned, but the process of learning itself.  It isn't the communication or acquisition of a defined set of facts, but the development of language and skills needed to solve problems.

Education is amoral and impersonal.  It is a tool just as well suited to the building as to the knocking down of walls, and especially adept at maintaining a wall's strength.

To say that someone has had a good or a poor education isn't a judgment of their ability to answer decontextualised questions in a test, pub quiz or game show.  Too often it is a simple shorthand for what school a person went to, and not what they learned there.

To make a statement about the quality of someone's education is to judge their ability to navigate the world they live in, from achieving economic independence to projecting authority, from holding a conversation with a stranger, to making sense of who they are and how they fit in.

Education is the ability to solve problems: academic and practical, personal and social.  To mistake education for the acquired ability to engage in powerful discourse is to accept and acquiesce to the legitimacy of that discourse and of those who have the luxury to partake in it, those whose survival is all but guaranteed, not by education but by power itself (seldom earned, often inherited, always guarded).

Education happens in and out of school, with and despite school, and in the end, regardless of school.

To pontificate on what education is for is really to do a disservice to schools.  It is the most shameless way to pull up the ladder behind you when you get over the wall, and those particularly guilty of it tend to be those most likely to be called well educated.  In fact, they are not the educated but the powerful, and the pontification serves only to protect that power, be they the People's Capitalist and his disruptors, the Knight Errant of Creativity, or the members of the Education Select Committee.

What is school for?  Now that's a good question.

If any part of the answer is to impart social justice and a fairer distribution of power in a modern democracy, then we must rid ourselves of the tyranny of the global language of education, and re-focus our attentions on our local schools.

Then, perhaps, we can assail the wall with as many ladders as will make it irrelevant, or knock it down altogether.

Then, perhaps we can begin to move away from a national curriculum towards a rational one.

Until then, sing it with me, teachers.  You know the chorus.

All in all
we are all
just bricks in the wall.

(That's how it went, isn't it?)

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Longing and belonging (The Outsiders)

For John Tomsett.

It isn't supposed to mean anything, is it? The nation state? It's just a construct. The lines on the world map are inventions resulting from geopolitical compromises between artificially divided populations.

And our values? Aren't they universal, as opposed to British, French, or Syrian? The lines of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are founded on the basic premise of maximum liberty for all.

Yet, in the light of Friday's events in the city of the revolution and of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, all rational political philosophy seems inadequate to the challenges posed by the radical other.

Depending on whom I speak to, when, and on my mood, I am sometimes French, sometimes Scottish, often British, and almost always none of the above.  I sometimes even ham up my American education. Nationality, for me, is a conversational plaything, a useful rhetorical gambit and little else.  Since childhood, because I moved so often, I've considered myself a citizen of the world on the good days, and a homeless outcast on the bad ones. It has been my lot to experience the longing for a tribe, and to observe in myself two factors which have consistently made that longing feel like a weight on my shoulders: love and fear.

Friday, I was French again.  Despite all my rationalisations, I felt French and will not have felt it any less than any other French person.  I felt a need to be there with and for my tribe. Love. I felt an overwhelming and ineffable need to cry, to scream and to be held. Fear.

The utopias philosophers speak of, beyond war and strife, depend not only on humanity conquering our fear of each other, but also our love for one another, for they are two sides of a coin whose currency is belonging.

I dreaded the RE lesson this morning, in which the cover work left for me was to broach Friday's events in the context of forgiveness, but what I learned from the process was that our personal response does not have to be our societal one.  Perhaps I can't forgive, but I don't want to live in a society that isn't forgiving.  The rational world of the philosophers reminds us that our aspirations and principles exist beyond our immediate emotions and needs.  They must, in order to withstand reality's onslaughts.  Those secular principles don't rely on a transcendent deity, but on something that transcends us nonetheless: the other.

You. You uphold what we believe in when I haven't the strength, just as I will for you. You stop me transgressing our principles when my fears overcome my capacity for love. You make sure love keeps up the fight.

How did I learn that through teaching a cover lesson? I didn't hide my emotions, but I didn't lose my professionalism. We challenged every assumption including mine, and at every turn the children chose a better world.  They chose empathy and understanding over hate and easy judgments.  They chose to believe that knowledge is power and that with better knowledge on both sides, less violence would ensue.  They did what children do.  They saw not through me but beyond me, and showed me the path.

That they engaged sufficiently in that hour was a testament to the power of an absence.  Jake wasn't present today due to an internal isolation.  Permanent exclusion beckons.  His behaviour is more than the school can manage.  Jake is from a broken home, and Jake breaks things.  He is a bully.  He truants.  He has little regard for rules or anyone who tries to impose them.

Jake has no tribe and no sense of belonging.  He is sick of home and he is sick of school.  Neither seems to want him, and so he is busy, most of the time, trying to create his own.  Its principles are intolerance, aggression, and transgression.  Jake, to put it bluntly, is feared.  He is feared by peers and teachers alike.

Nevertheless, I missed him today.  I missed him because he was the only one in the class who would have truly challenged the resolve of the others in their moral choices.  I missed him because we may have achieved less with him there, but it might have been more meaningful.  I missed him because he stood to gain the most from it.  Mostly, I missed him because there is always love in my heart for the one without a tribe, for the outcast.

Will the class community forgive him his past trespasses when he returns, or will they find themselves unable to make the link between Paris and home, between their philosophy and their lived experience, between principles and practice? Will they allow love to conquer their fears?  In this class, in this instance, love just might conquer fear, but the system probably has other plans for Jake.

I can't help but wonder whether, perpetuating the folly of the adult world, excluding Jakes across the land isn't sowing the seeds of the next generation's discords. For all the talk of the supremacy of knowledge in education, are we prioritising academic knowledge over knowledge of each other?

They see beyond us, but will we let them get there?

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

M for Macchietta


It's a complete muck-up. We've got our micros mixed up with our macros and a massive mess at the meso level, and while we're all mired in misdirection, many are muddled by the mulitudinous messages making claims about what matters. May I offer this maquette as the maiden moment of a manifesto mainly aimed at mitigating the manifold manifestations of this modern dilemna, and maybe marking the commencement of a march towards a meeting of minds?

Musings Upon Macrophagic Myopia
The cells designed to protect the body of education have begun to attack it 
and its vision is impaired.

An Adventure 65 Milliseconds In The Making

Mesdames et Messieurs! Morassic Park! Where moronic meddlers have manipulated and mutated the memetic make-up of MPs to make the Morganosaurus Rex. A Machiavellian master of maintaining mutually incompatible mindsets simultaneously, she is a menacing amelioration on former ministers.

Welcome to a magical world, where STEM can be lauded as the future of education, while the Ebacc, devoid of Technology and Engineering, is marketed as the way to better educate all young people.

Welcome to a mathematical world where a target of 90% is an achievable ambition from a baseline of 22% and everyone must be above average.

Welcome to a measurable world where national, high-stakes tests are said to improve learning, and teacher assessment to be a hindrance to it.

Welcome to a militarised world where squads of super-teachers will parachute into classrooms to combat under-achievement, and fill the gaps left by traitorous deserters who abandon their profession students for lack of grit resilience commitment.

Acronyms: Teachers love'em, apparently.
In the macro world of Morassic Park, being seen to respond to the concerns of students parents teachers researchers voters newspaper readerships is key.  Moral panics are excellent indicators of what must be done, and ought to have been done yesterday.  If policies are not rolled out quickly, heads will reshuffle. In Morassic Park, what matters is efficiency, stoopid.

In the macro world, accountability is to the Prime Minister and his director of strategy, and measured against the delivery of ideological ambitions and manifesto promises control of the backbenches. If you can't do more with less, you need to appear to be doing it.  In Morassic Park, what matters is the election, stoopid.

In the macro world, policy is led by the needs of business and those needs are best expressed through international league tables. If the tax rate workforce is not competitive, companies will go elsewhere. In Morassic Park, what matters is the economy, stoopid.

Morgan: What motivates her?

But no, Morganosaurus Rex is no Machiavelli. She is a macchietta like the rest of us. A speckle. Armed with a little sketch in her mind of what education is and should be. A ridiculous person. Ridiculous by dint of the preposterous power she is able to wield and the sheer egotism of anyone ever believing it can be done well.

The holder of the Secretary of State's job starts with accountability measures that run counter to the desired behaviours that might lead to a real, positive change in education. Regardless of personality or underpinning ideology, reforms that are not informed from the ground up and that exclude teachers from the process will not ensure that excellence is the norm in every classroom. Witness the exodus. Witness the travesty of this advert. Witness the morass that educational reform has been stuck in since the inception of the national curriculum.

Let us dream!

Imagine teachers leading the teaching profession, reform and the pace of reform.

Imagine an entire education system with teachers at the top, and layers of support below instead of pressure from above.

Imagine the lowest rung of the pyramid is an office in Whitehall.

What would a Secretary of Education's job entail in this context?

To be continued...

Part 2: Mesoteric Societies (Give Him A Mask...)
Part 3: Micro brewing (Ideas Are Bulletproof!)

Monday, 26 October 2015

Austerity Education (Freedom Is Slavery)

Benjamin Franklin: An austere sort.
All around, the debates rage on.  Can you even call them debates?  Arguments, rows, skirmishes, battles.  All may be better monikers for what I read daily.  Little importance seems to be attached to conciliation, let alone synthesis, and the underlying causes for this clash of cultures remains unspoken, perhaps even unnoticed.  There is a distinctly austere flavour to the rhetoric.

Like those you know who thrive on misery and drama in their lives, educational thinkers and engaged practitioners seem to thrive on conflict for its own sake.  Maybe it sells books or earns you Twitter followers.  Maybe it makes you feel vindicated in the face of your hearltess and misguided leadership team.  If you're a leader, maybe it helps you feel your policies are validated. One thing's for sure, it doesn't lead anywhere nice.  There is an austerity of outcomes.

It's no good blaming Gove's legacy.  He only exploited what was already latent in the education community, what we began to accept the moment performativity became the yardstick of school improvement - namely that we are all in competition with each other. Teacher has turned against teacher for performance pay, school against school for parent choice, local authority against academy trust for real estate, and thinker against thinker for mastery over the pedagogical realm.  The latter's rank-and-file foot soldiers are battle-ready in every classroom to defend to the death their right to teach this way or that, poised to invade their neighbouring classrooms to impose their practice upon others.

No, it's no good blaming Gove.  We really only have ourselves to blame for this situation.  Sure, he exacerbated things. Granted, he was divisive.  True, his language was of the cheapest type of rhetoric.  But boy, did we lap it up.  By we, I mean everyone in the educational community, those who were insulted by and those who found solace in his assaults.  Frankly, if anyone believes any of it was for the betterment of teaching and learning, of schooling and education, they need to question their level of critical reflection.

Was there a dominant 'progressive' culture before Gove?  Perhaps.  Was education best served by reversing that imbalance by incentivising a dominant 'traditionalist' culture? No.  Did the policies serve an economic and political ideology?  Yes, yes, and yes again.

With school budgets set to shrink by up to 12% over the course of this parliament (BBC News), it is little wonder that a progressive culture finds itself out of favour with the authorities.  To explore, to try and to make errors, to experiment and to research are expensive, especially when they entail investing in technologies, in training, in staff and pupils.

Imagine Nicky Morgan saying this: "I believe in adapting education to a changing society, but we just can't afford it.  As a result, we will have to return to a more traditional curriculum and pedagogy, knowing that this will be damaging to the prospects of this young generation's future." Well, of course not.  If you believe in something, you fund it.  And if you can't fund it, you don't believe in it. That's politics, baby.  Politics for winners, in any case.

This may suit you.  Like me, you may have always looked on with deep scepticism at some of the measures brought into your school by an over-zealous leadership team.  Few teachers haven't.  Like me, you may have always felt more comfortable with chalk-and-talk than with cooperative learning.  Few teachers don't. Like me, you may resent being left to deal with the behavioural consequences of poor leadership.  Again, you are not alone.  Does this make you and me traditionalists and others progressives.  Like Hell it does.

Is education perfect? No.  Does it need reform? Yes. Should that reform be focused on improving schools for all teachers and students? Yes.  Should reform be based on research? Yes.  Should it abandon the lessons of the past? No.

If you agree, and I've met very few who don't, then by any definition of progressive, you are one.

To continue to be divided along the lines of trads vs progs is to continue to lose the argument for investment in schools. And if you work for a school, then to continue to be divided along these lines is to continue to lose the argument for investment in you.

Make no mistake that the reforms of the past six years, just like the six that came before, and the six before that, are not serving you.  What we are getting is not a traditionalist education system.  What we were on course for before was not a progressive one.  So what is it?

It is a marketised system in which your classroom will never again be yours, in which you are a resource, and like any other resource, must bring the most value for the least cost, with no say in what value means or what it looks like.

Your traditionalist practices may afford you some safety at the expense of a freedom to experiment that you neither wanted nor needed, but if just one of your colleagues wanted that freedom, then you have sacrificed it for your safety, and deserve neither.

Your progressive practices may feel undermined by new priorities and pressures, and you may rue a freedom you have lost, but if you blame traditionalists for that rather than realise that you have joined their ranks, then you never deserved yours either.

Austere? Perhaps, but in the words of Franklin Roosevelt: "In the truest sense, freedom can never be bestowed; it must be achieved."  Freedom for all teachers can only be achieved by all teachers.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Shifting Grades of Pay (So Sexy It Hurts)

I wrote here about teachers reclaiming their classrooms, and here about reclaiming their curriculum.  The following is an exploration of how we can bring these outcomes about.  It starts with reclaiming our narrative.

The number of education stories in  the media is staggering, and the competitive nature of the news market means content producers are trying to out-do each other to stay relevant. From #EducatingCardiff to #edubill tweet-alongs, from relentless promotion of new research to equally relentless assaults on the same, from airing the baseless pronouncements of those who should know better to those of politicians who crave the public's attention, from 10 things you need to know about a newly anointed leader, to 6 bits of advice the said leader will never read, the education press is hot, and that can only mean one thing.

Education is sexy. (Sir Michael will be pleased.)

Sir Michael Wilshaw: A gentleman in public and a Master in the classroom.
I don't blame you for thinking I'm a basket case.  It's cliche by now to say that teaching has never been more demanding. We all feel the pressure of this relentless media and political onslaught.  We're all desperately trying to make sense of whether or not technology can be a good tool for learning. We're all trying to navigate our way through pedagogical approaches that one day are touted as silver bullets and the next flouted like rabid hounds. And we're all driven to distraction by targets and progress measures the formulae for which has both mathematicians and everyone else completely puzzled.  Formulae it takes a politician to invent and a culture of fear to accept unquestionably. Formulae as reflective of student progress as your average Educating Cardiff comment thread is about human progress.

I'm still trying to work out whether academies are a good idea, and look at that! I'm in one.  I was just devising the best way to deliver this course based on years of experience, and would you believe it? It no longer exists.  Levels? What levels?  An AS? What's that? At least I'm safely in a good school, right? Coasting, you say? What does that mean?

Education reform is moving on apace, and something that needs that much fixing can only be very, very bad, right? Not necessarily.  If you think education is the proverbial whipping boy for all of our social justice ailments, think again.

Tough love: Spare the rod. Spoil the teacher.
I repeat: Education is sexy, albeit it a 50 Shades kind of sexy.  Whipping is involved, to be sure, but it's carried out with mutual consent, in a contracted sort of a way, for the pleasure of both parties.  If you don't enjoy it, you know the safety words.  Depending on circumstance, they vary from "stress-related illness" to the simpler "I quit".  More and more are choosing the "I quit" option, fewer and fewer are seeing the appeal of a dominant-submissive relationship with Nicky Morgan, and the result is a recruitment and retention crisis.

False Dichotomies

This consensus in education hasn't come about by chance, but by design.  It isn't a coincidence that in the face of the crisis cited above, the Honourable Nick Gibb, MP is often heard to utter the complete opposite.  Why! There's never been a better time to be a teacher!  The education reform movement, regardless of which government has been in power, has signed  teachers up to an inevitable decline in their working conditions, their pay and, underpinning it all, their professional status.

Progs v Trads: The Eternal Return of the Same
Argue all you like about pedagogy, behaviour and learning, about personal development, values and engagement, (and they are important) but our debates are all false dichotomies served for our consumption.  They feed our belief that there is a one-size-fits-all solution to the problems we face, that if we can find the right wording, that if we can just persuade those who disagree, that if people weren't just so plain stupid, that if the right government with the right mandate could just get into power, that if we could design and carry out the right research with the right effect size, we wouldn't face this onslaught anymore. Mr Grey would love us the way we want to be loved.

But education is not one beautiful, fragile, shackled body. Education is what each one of us does, and Mr Grey is playing us against each other for his attention, while he holds the whip hand.  Our arguments are as redundant as they are demeaning.  We are unwittingly begging for punishment by it, and then observe with fey looks on our faces as yet more decisions are made each day that, ultimately, impact on those we care for - our students as well as our families.

A Culture Of Fear

Education is messy.  There is no strategy.  There is only a toolkit.  There are no guarantees, only relatively safe bets.  No certainties, only trial and error.  We all get it wrong, and we are all dedicated to fixing it when we do.

And yet we have been sold on the myth that it is a controllable, measurable process, and that myth is what shackles us as professionals and makes us vulnerable.  It is what has allowed a market in consultancy and pre-packaged resources to arise, the ranks of supply agencies to swell with amazing teachers, and the wholesale introduction of unqualified teachers across schools.  Who better to replace us with, after all, than someone even more vulnerable?  How better to degrade us than to let us know our assets are actually an encumbrance?  How more effectively to reduce the wage bill than to introduce a free market race to the bottom for the services we provide?

The insidious thing about a culture of fear is the dependency it breeds and feeds upon.  Freedom at first seems like an unattainable ideal, and then a dreadful prospect.  What would we do if people stopped telling us what to do?  Who would protect us?  Mr Grey isn't perfect, but at least I don't have to Tinder.

Crisis? What crisis?: Mr Grey's favourite position.
The good news is that power-hungry Mr Grey has over-played his whip.  The relentless pressure he's been applying is threatening to undermine his entire edifice.  A little nudge at the right time, and he'll be caught with his trousers down, a cat o' nine tails raised and waving an unendearing semi to a half-empty room.

So, what's the nudge? And what happens after?

So Sexy It Hurts

The first rule of Flight Club seems to be that you do not talk about Flight Club.  This needs to change.

A Clean break?: Don't wash your hands of the whole profession.
The nudge, simply, is to open the doors to the red classrooms of pain, to make public what has been kept private.  Disown the stigma of mental health issues and let the world know the causes and consequences of teacher stress.  Disown the shame of under-performance and publish the stories of over-management.  Disown the fear of unemployment and embrace the opportunities of the teacher shortage. Flip the narrative. Embrace your sexiness and strike while the education press is hot.

What happens after is, as it should always have been, up to us.

Imagine schools rooted in their local communities and engaged with global issues, instead of ones rooted in global competitiveness and disjointed from their local context.

Imagine a profession that has space for traditionalists and progressives (whatever they are), for chalkboards and smartboards, for Maths and the Arts, for Science and Citizenship, for the trivium and trivia, for knowledge and skills.

Imagine an education system that has time for all these things and your well-being.

Imagine a sustainable model for education, one founded on trust in the professional judgement of its teachers.

Until then, join the refrain.

I'm too sexy for your contract, too sexy for your targets, too sexy for your INSET.
I'm too sexy for dichotomies, too sexy for league tables, too sexy for your PISA.
So sexy it hurts.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Fear and Loathing in Bas Vegas (Who disrupts the #Disruptors?)

I was somewhere around Barking, on the edge of the desert, when the adrenaline began to take hold. I remember saying something like: "How long do I have?" But that rotten conscience of mine hadn't arrived yet. Strange looks from besuited passers-by.  What would she say? "As your conscience I advise you to get there at top speed. It'll be a god-damn miracle if you get there before the robots get your job."

Back To The Future II: 2015 as imagined in 1985.
Inexplicable waves of hyper-tension. The sight of the lizards doesn't help. Armani suits, white sparkly dresses, stiletto heels covered in diamonds, outward projections of power. Garments woven from the finest cold hard cash would be less conspicuous. Before I know it, I am wearing a purple wristband. I have vague memories of other colours. A hierarchy of colours. I hope the purple is imperial. I self-funded to be here.

Incredible, I think to myself.  How did I get here?  I'm holding a piece of cardboard to my face and as I pivot I get a full-spectrum view of some natural formations somewhere far sunnier than London while a young woman reads me a script. All I can think is I'd rather be under that blue sky... Actually, anywhere else but experience the future of education Google-style. "This will make it possible to take the poorest kids anywhere in the world. Who needs field trips?" I want to vomit on G-Man's shoes but I haven't eaten yet. Next door, there's a robot tipped to take my job. Look professional. Exchange business cards.

Virgin on funny: Welcome to Fabulous Bas Vegas
Two days ago I was teaching in Basildon. These kids go to school in a shiny new building dropped from space into the middle of their estate.  A new school building, apparently, is exactly the ticket to get them engaged in learning - it makes you feel better that Mum's new boyfriend kicked you out the house this morning before you had any breakfast when you've got a shiny building to go to.  

No anxiety in Basildon. Not for me. I feel good there. I'm doing what I'm built to do. There's something honest and salt-of-the-earth about being sworn at by an angry tweenager. There's something ineffable about turning that into an opportunity to learn.

It's tiring too. It weakens you emotionally, being on your game all the time, finding the right level of wit to show your mettle without scaring him off. In hindsight, I think the reason I decided to go to #Disruptors was that my shoe got ripped by the door as it was pushed into me by said tween. I was weakened, and the sales pitch got to me.

"The Future of Education: Does the Current Model Make the Grade?"  Fuck no.  Not as long as I keep getting shoes ripped.  I'm in. Take me to the 21st Century. 

I find my conscience.  She'll keep me straight.  We head to the main hall, decked out like the neon orgasm of an art student high on the same shit Tracey Emin's ingesting.

Tracy Emin: Blinding
Disruptors: The Future of Education

The day proceeds like an extended episode of Horizon that fell into a puddle of Tomorrow's World and went to dry off any semblance of fact by airing on Channel 5.  

Session 1 - Education is bollocks, okay? Chief Guru Branson's evidence for the need to transform education is that he left school before he could legally incur debt in order to start a magazine.  Ergo, school is irrelevant, anti-creative, anti-entrepreneurial.  How old are you now, Branson?  Schools have changed.  Why haven't you grown up? Why haven't you come to terms with your elite start?  Hey! Why are you pulling the ladder up, Branson?  I'm not finished with you! He shouts down from his spacecraft: "Oh! And who needs French? They all speak English anyway." I shit you not.

Wisdom of the market: Quel encule!
Session 2 - Welcome Robot Overlords. They walk and talk. Like kids and lizards in sparkly shoes. Unlike teachers, they have fresh, unhaggard faces all year round. They can be updated with the newest apps so that their pedagogical practices will never be out of fashion, and they can be controlled from a tablet. Fuck you, NUT. Your days are numbered. I think. I was mostly tweeting so I may have missed the gist.

Behaviour Solved: If the friendly face doesn't do it, the laser eyes will.

Session 3 - Space. The final market. These are the voyages of the Virgin Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new markets, to seek out new life and sell it aspirations, to boldly grow where no shareholder has gone before.

Session 4 - Google. Creativity is more important than spelling. No, really. Look, here's a picture of me when I couldn't spell.  Wasn't I cute? Oh, and cardboard is the new field trip for the down-trodden. The lizard population is lapping this up. They flew from LA for this. I look to my conscience for guidance. She is simultaneously endorsing my avid criticism and tweeting her matter-of-fact observations. How does she do it?

Session 5 - Creativity is the new literacy. In this, the second age of modernity, reading and writing are a thing of the past (and the rich).  Who needs to read when you can have any book (in Google Books) read to you with the synthesised facsimile of your favourite posh voice?  (I hear David Cameron reading Animal Farm to me. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again. Jesus! Did I say that? Or just think it? Did they hear me?  I glance over at my conscience, but she seems oblivious - tweeting.) Who needs writing when you can dictate anything into a wrist appendage? Why stop there? Why not headphones that can interpret your brainwaves into the appropriate vocabulary and tone for your audience?  Mine at present are spewing Aaaaaaaaarweyopgluuuuuuuurrrrrrrphlum.

Creativity is the new something something: Write your own caption.

Session 6 - Virgin helped me start my business when I left school:  Not one of these disgustingly youthful show-ponies from the Virgin stable seem to know how to fix my shoe or prevent further on-the-job shoe ripping, let alone fix the (as-per-subtle-advertising) broken school system. Entrepreneurial, my arse.

Session 7 - The end of the Galactic dream: Sal Khan. The Sal Khan. He can't be here today because you're not that important.  He's in LA. The lizard couple in Armani and diamond shoes who flew in from LA don't even look a little miffed. They are resilient beasts. But he's on Skype, except he's not, because the connection means the entire episode looks like a cut scene from The Martian. The irony is lost on the lizard population.

Sal Khan: All the way from the stars.
Session 8 - The pub: My conscience takes me out for a pint and allows me to vent. She agrees with all my criticisms, though I suspect this is for therapeutic purposes.  

Session 10 - The disruption: My conscience sits between me and and a smiling stranger. He is rubbing cream into his hands. He offers it to her and she partakes, then offers it to me. Have I stumbled across some weird ritual? I succumb to peer pressure. I take some and reflect how far backwards mankind has come since the 70's. The debate starts and I find I am impaired by greasy hands. I can't tweet. Consternated, I look around for that sycophant of a conscience of mine but she's gone. She was a deep-cover Virgin agent all along. I knew it. Nothing of the debate is intelligible to me if it can't be quickly digested into 140-character snide comments. I've been disrupted.

Post Scriptum - Viva Bas Vegas

Strange memories on this nervous night in Bas Vegas. I'm sure LA in the late noughties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run . . . 

And this, I think, was their handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; they didn’t need that. Their energy would simply prevail. They had all the momentum; they were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .

But now, less than five years later, you can go up to the top floor of a Basildon Academy and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

And Give Me Back My Curriculum! (or, The Mean, Green, Teaching Machine)

By JL Dutaut

In my last post, Stay Out Of My Classroom! (Unless I've Invited You.), I urged teachers to retake the initiative on their professionalism, to wrest control of their pedagogical practices from teacher-leaders, school leaders, politicians, academics, Joe Public and snake-oil salesmen alike, to kick them all out of their classrooms, and only to let back in those who could be trusted to help them make a positive impact on their students.  But what then?  Who can a teacher trust?

Within schools, it's easy to see how teacher leadership might be achieved.  Reciprocal accountability, self-direction in CPD, mutually supportive networks of colleagues and collective responsibility are all facilitated by a shared experience of community and culture: a clear sense of localism and self-reliance, within a global context of citizenship and morality.  It isn't an unattainable ideal but the ethos of many school leaders, the reality for many schools, and arguably the reason they are deemed outstanding.

Beyond schools, however, reinstating teacher professionalism in the modern education landscape raises two important questions.  In the context of the atomisation of institutions and providers, the apposite centralisation of power over the curriculum, the marketisation of exams, the publication of competitive rankings of schools and school systems, and the proliferation of writing about and research into pedagogical practices, policies and educational philosophy: what power do I have, and what responsibility?

At all levels in education, a fear permeates decision making, and it is the fear of a loosely defined under-performance.  The zeitgeist has it that the ogre of education must be brought to heel, to serve the interests of economic growth and competitiveness.  An ogre!  Think of the children!

The Ogre Awakens: What are you doing in my swamp?
The result of many years of agonising (read: voter-baiting, research funding, book selling...) over 'failing schools' has turned the world of the ogre into a swamp full of homeless fairytale characters: The Three Learning Styles, Little Red Thinking Hat, Jack and the Hierarchy of Needs, Flow Right and the Multiple Intelligences, Growth Mindset and the Three Core Subjects, A Luddite and the Genie of the Laptop.  One-dimensional in their didacticism, their narratives are self-contained, simple, and linear.  Everything education is not.

To usher these fairytales back to their rightful places in the pantheon, to limit the damage their wrongful application and their jostling for attention continues to have in classrooms across the world, we must move the ogre to action.

How long will teachers let it go unchallenged that they are the ogre, that theirs alone is the responsibility for under-performance?  No government I know of has challenged this syllogism:
  • Education is under-performing;
  • Teachers do education;
  • Therefore teachers are under-performing.  
They only offer different solutions: some say we need more stick, others more carrot, but the diagnosis remains constant, notwithstanding the occasional passing of the buck to a previous government for giving us too much stick/carrot (delete as appropriate).

And for as long as the stick and carrot have been applied, nothing has ever moved the ogre.  He has continued to under-perform, and allowed his swamp to be invaded.

Leaving aside the first proposition of the syllogism for a minute to better focus on the second.  If education is an ogre, then there is one thing we know about ogres.

Ogres are like onions.

There Will Be Tears: The layers of the education onion.

The current paradigm has teachers as lone practitioners, isolated from the world, wrapped in concentric layers of authority.  Everything (pedagogical practice, curriculum design, examinations, and daily administration) is handed down through consecutive layers with little or no teacher agency.  Effects are then monitored, assessed, reviewed and conceptualised in a process increasingly removed from the classroom and subject to competing forces.

In effect, our classrooms are the petri dishes of a vast social experiment run by a mad scientist with multiple personality disorder. Our students are cells to be cultured, and teachers are the inoculum, in a fools' race to find a cure for a mysterious disease called under-performance.  Its symptoms are unclear. Its diagnosis is inconsistent.  Only two things are known about it: its epicentre is the ogre's swamp, and its victims are our children.

There is a dissonance at the heart of this.  To blame teachers for under-performance in a system within which they have no control over their professional practice is like a biologist blaming the inoculum for creating the wrong culture, or me blaming paracetamol for not clearing my hangover.

I, Teacher: Free School 18. Your workforce upgrade is ready for deployment.

Conceptually, we need to stop thinking of education as a medicine to be administered, and of teachers as the delivery mechanisms for that medicine, as the inoculum in the petri dish, as the ogres in the swamp.  There is only one logical end to that way of doing things: Our children will increasingly be taught by a roboticised workforce of content delivery personnel, until those can be replaced entirely by content delivery robots.

Education is messy.  It's a swamp of beautiful and monstrous potentials.  It can't be sanitised.  Every part of it grows according to its own requirements, and it never under-performs.  It performs as well as the climate allows it to.

If our aim is to see more children grow into happy, capable and independent young adults, then all of the myths of the swamp have to go:  Little Red Thinking Hat, The Three Learning Styles, and the Ogre of under-performance too.

The way to make that happen is to become professionals again, to involve ourselves in every aspect of education, from staffing and school policy decisions to research and curriculum development, from inspection and monitoring to setting government priorities.

Donkey Xote: Tilting at the windmill of under-performance.

The carrot and the stick have been wielded effectively by governments for decades.  While the stick has been dominant in recent years, it can't continue to be in the midst of teacher shortages and a recruitment crisis.  But it's important we don't fall for the unattainable carrot again.

So.  What's next? Professional self-determination that is contained to one school is only a simulacrum of professionalism.  If your school has got this far, it is still subject to the vagaries of the political cycle, the news cycle, and the whims of book publishers.  "Stay out of my classroom" isn't enough. Up the ante with: "And give me back my curriculum!"

Who can we trust?  Ourselves and each other, because we all want to do our best for our students.  That's what a professional is.

What power do we have?  The power to say no, to reclaim control of our working practices, to enable ourselves to be involved at every level we want to be involved at, according to our strengths and our desires.

And what responsibility?  To ensure our children don't grow up believing in ogres but in themselves; that they, too, can shape the world into what they want it to be, and not to have it imposed on them the way it is.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Stay out of my classroom! (Unless I’ve invited you.)

By JL Dutaut

ResearchEd was a fascinating experience.  Helen Pike’s closing compliment about the exceptional commitment shown by so many teachers to attend an educational conference on a Saturday, and her comment that there was a feeling throughout the day that something like a movement was beginning to form were welcome and accurate. Tom Bennett’s quip that it wasn’t a movement but a cult drew the laughs, and in a few words stated exactly what this movement’s main driver is: to reclaim the profession from all those who seek to influence it for political ends and from ideological standpoints.

Tom Bennett: He's not the Tsar. He's a very naughty boy.
The educational cultists are legion, from back-to-basics conservatives to 21st-Century-Learning reformists, chalk-and-talk traditionalists to technology evangelists, subject hierarchists to creativity gurus, defenders of canonical knowledge to crusaders of skills-centred learning to name but a few.

From the lowliest believer to the most exalted cult leader, through to all the noble souls whose calling is teaching, all can agree on one thing: education is in flux.

What ResearchEd has done (and it’s going global in doing it) is to undermine the tyranny of education cults, a tyranny whose primary victims are teachers and school leaders, and whose collateral damage is inflicted on students, by way of trends with all the depth of a fashion catwalk, monitoring with all the scrutinising power of the eye of Sauron and the impartiality of a tabloid paper, and initiatives with all the knowledge-base of your average troll’s tweet and the consistency of jelly.  It looks solid, until you prod it.

In all the confusion sown by the cult of personality in education, it’s been hard to unite as a profession.  If the teacher retention and recruitment figures tell us anything, it isn’t simply about the government, school leadership, the media or other top-down bogeymen; it’s about the lack of an idea to rally around.  Teachers’ unions are ostricised from the political discourse, rarely making a dent in the media frenzy.  Blame the government and the media as they might, they’ve repeated the same top-down, ideological, cultist attitudes they so readily identify in others.

I’m pro-union, by the way, and have much to thank the NUT for, as do we all, but if they are to stay relevant as advocates, over and above the admirable role they’ve found themselves relegated to as professional organisations, they are going to have to be the change they want to see, because the rest of us aren’t waiting around.  We’ve found our rallying call, and it is this: Stay out of my classroom.
I realise this needs some fleshing out, so bear with me.

Billy Connolly once came back at a heckler with this: “Don’t tell me how to do my job. I don’t come to your work and tell you how to sweep up.” I think the teaching profession needs to have the same chutzpah.

Billy Connolly: When he knew how to handle hecklers.
Omnipresence is the cultist’s favoured tool for ensuring adherence to the cult’s principles: it’s achieved through unannounced visits, routine inspections, group sessions, charismatic leadership, goal-setting and performance reviews.  Recognise these from your school experience?

Of course, all of these can be benevolent and beneficial, but when applied for the wrong purposes, they are destructive to all but the cult’s core membership, the hardliners, the believers, the adherants, in short, those that need monitoring the least and gain the most in professional confidence by it.

As a profession, we shouldn’t wish away the classroom observations, the learning walks, the Ofsted inspections, the performance management, the CPD or indeed charismatic school leaders and politicians, but if their intentions are to be benevolent and beneficial to us all, then the myth of ‘the right way’ needs to be totally and irreparably dismantled.

Stay out of my classroom (unless I’ve invited you).

The Panopticon: Mr Jones. Please report for your observation feedback.

The only circumstances under which anyone should disrupt the atmosphere and relationships a teacher creates with her students, so crucial to learning, are if they are invited to do so, or are obliged to do so because of safeguarding concerns.

That won’t be popular with a particular brand of leader, and it is undermined by a particular brand of teacher, too, but if it is in the power of a leadership team to do anything, it is to create a climate within their organisation, much as the teacher creates the atmosphere of her classroom.
For a culture to pervade, as opposed to a cult, only one thing needs to happen: inclusion.  No culture can exist that doesn’t reflect all the voices of those who create and consume it.  In a culture, we are all creators and we are all consumers.

You want to observe my teaching for performance management?  Sure, and when is my observation for yours scheduled?  You want to do a learning walk?  By all means, and when is my learning walk scheduled for?  We have CPD on Tuesday? Great. I can’t wait to see what I can choose from and I’m already working on the one my colleagues asked me to deliver next Tuesday.  Time to scrutinise my books?  Have you got all the governor and SLT meeting minutes ready for me to read?
Reciprocity is one facet of inclusion, and openness is another.  How much more welcoming will a teacher be when being observed on standards she has ownership of, for targets she has set herself, by colleagues she, too, will be observing?  How much more legitimate will a leader be when being appraised by the staff she manages?  How much more honest will a culture be when everyone’s doors are open by choice rather than coercion and when asking for support is a mark of professionalism, not weakness?  How much better will students be served by teachers working together to find the right way through the curriculum  for them.   

If your school already exhibits such amazing reciprocity and openness, that’s fantastic news, but you haven’t won yet.  Why do so many schools not, for starters?  And for seconds, why are so many education myths still going unchallenged?  Why has it taken a student-led petition to ensure Edexcel includes female composers in its music curriculum?  Ofsted has already moved towards being far more inclusive of teachers: its new framework is the result of extensive consultation (and research, would you believe it?), and it has committed to ensuring 70% of its inspectors are practising professionals, but can more be done so that inspections feel like less of a threat?  The absolute prize pudding, though, will be when ministers of education serve educators, and not the other way around. 

Direct instruction and student-centred learning, teaching from textbooks and project-based learning, pen and paper and iPads, individual endeavour and teamwork, knowledge development and  personal development, English, Maths, Science, Languages and Humanities, and Art, Music, Drama, Food tech and PSHE, discipline and self-expression, logic and creativity, career guidance and relationships guidance, tradition and progress - the list of potential binary opposites is seemingly endless, and it is the list of all the things we teachers do.  And you know what? It’s okay for us to say we need help with that.

Leadership: In this context, who wouldn't want to be at the top?

Trust no one who tries to convince you one is more or less important than all the others.  Trust no binary set-ups.  Trust no one who makes you feel it’s your fault when things are hard. Trust no one who tells you there’s a right way, or that you’re doing it the wrong way. Trust no one who comes uninvited.  Trust no cult leaders.

We don’t need a cult, we need a movement.  We don’t need a leader, we need a cause.  I hope its rallying cry will be, once and for all, “Stay out of my classroom.”