Tom Bennett

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Monthly Archives: December 2010

Outliers inside the Black Box: nature, nurture and the difficulty of capturing Tinkerbell

I am a strong confident winner!

A merry Christmas to you! I, like many others, marked the season with the definitive West of Scotland diet (fried cigarettes, etc.) and the annihilation of the very concept of abstinence (I absorbed such a vast amount of alcohol that it simulated being attached to a drip containing Bacardi in a solution of Whisky; as we speak I’m sipping Listerene to avoid my body convulsing with withdrawal symptoms, like the Bends). Fortunately I didn’t get too many books on Progressive Education, so among other things, I re-read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, and it got me thinking as I watched ‘The One Ronnie‘ and wondered if it there was a collective noun for the less funny ones left behind in comedy duos when the talent inevitably catches the last train. In the absence of a better term, I’ll use the phrase ‘a Corbett’ . As my producer said. Aha.

You may have read one of Gladwell’s books; certainly it seems statistically more likely that you have than you haven’t, as he appears to be the JK Rowling of pop psychology/ economics. Nothing wrong with being a journalist, of course, and I’d be the biggest gob on the block if I criticised someone else for talking about subjects that he isn’t personally expert in. Good God, it’s practically my full time hobby. Empires were built by gentlemen amateurs.

But Gladwell isn’t interested in amateurs, and here’s the link to education (I promise): he analyses- possibly, although there’s debate about how far that term can be extended- the common factors in extremely successful and talented people. Or talented people who have shown success. And what conclusions does he come up with?
1. You need to work for around 10,000 hours at something before you make it.
2. A lot of luck is involved in becoming successful.
3. A lot of that luck is based on the opportunities your background affords you.

We sell coronaries

Holy cow, really? Number 2 and 3 must come as a surprise to anyone who still believes that when you’re born, three fairies descend on your crib and grant you three talents. Can anyone be surprised that an enormous number of variables propel us hither and thither, like seaweed in storm, until we land on beaches beyond our imaginations? If so, I have some lunar real estate I’d like to sell them. In that respect, Gladwell is the Prophet of The Bleedin’ Obvious.

The first claim is a bit more serious, and even more closely aligned to a very current educational debate: what is intelligence? What is talent? Gladwell cites Anders Ericsson when he claims that basically, anyone becomes brilliant when he or she puts around 10,000 hours into any activity. The implications of this very large claim are many; talent isn’t strictly an innate quality but an acquired skill; anyone can become good at anything; more broadly, anyone can be a genius in a field, if they bash away at it long enough. This echoes similar views by Black, Harrison, Lee, Marshall, William and Kappan in their very readable ‘Inside the Black Box’ which appears to be compulsory reading for the modern member of SLT, in a very similar way that Mao’s Little Red Book was a must have for…well, everyone in Communist China. They were looking at ways to improve learning, and jolly good on them for it; one of the subsidiary assumptions of that paper was that ‘intelligence’ was essentially a set of learnable skills, and that there needed to be much more emphasis on the idea that, perhaps, all men were created equal, but the opportunities afforded to them were not.

I’d argue that the idea that opportunities aren’t evenly distributed from birth is so axiomatic, so empirically demonstrable, that it doesn’t bear further examination. It is practically known intuitively. But the idea that upper-spectrum ability/ success is intrinsically linked to a given amount of practise, definitely, by definition, isn’t. Gladwell’s claim (echoed by William et al) that anyone, given the right environment, can achieve greatness is very much in vogue in classroom theory these days; it gives succour to the idea that we are all essentially victims or villains of our environment, and that anyone, sufficiently tutored can succeed. Well there are a complicated web of assumptions and conclusions that emerge and underpin such thinking, that all play minor and major parts in the classroom melodrama.

For one, it favours the notion that we are all the autonomous, independent, equal individuals of Libertarian philosophy, which in turn harbours the germs of the American Dream; that anyone can make it, with a bit of spit, moxie and possibly, chutzpah, all words that sound better when you say them like Jimmy Cagney or Tony Soprano. Now, those concepts are intrinsically linked to the notion of free will, that we are morally responsible beings that are both sentient (aware) and cognisant (decision making). But it simultaneously supports the deterministic position that we are creatures almost entirely of our environment, that there are factors cosmic and mundane that influence what side the toast of our lives lands.

‘I wish to practise for 10,000 hours!’

How does this play in the classroom? It matters enormously. If you believe Gladwell, then so-called thick kids aren’t thick at all; they simply haven’t banked enough hours in the genius gym. Or that there’s no such thing as being ‘bad’ at, say, English, just spending too many hours in front of the Nintendo rather than reading Nietzsche. Interestingly enough, although I don’t agree with this at all, I don’t think it’s a necessary assumption for the Black Box analysts, and that their conclusions still stand without it. You don’t need to assume that all talent is acquired in order to believe that formative, personalised assessment tailored to the child’s needs can be beneficial.

Why don’t I agree with Gladwell’s proposition? Because, apart from the fact that most of what he says is simply an elegant way of repackaging truths so obvious that even Stuart ‘The Brand’ could grasp them, he has a tendency to over simplify spectacularly; he adopts an absurdly reductivist position that links ‘greatness’ with the 10,000 hour hurdle, without conducting anything like an exhaustive sample. Rather, in the manner of homoeopaths and alchemists everywhere, he looks around to see what a handful of successful people have in common, and declares that any factor he can discern is therefore the causal one. Aristotle would tear his hair out, if he had any left on his bony cranium.

Another issue I have is that he seems rather vague about his definition of ‘outliers’ and what he means by success. Sure, he seems to be satisfied that success = The Beatles and Bill Gates, but using paradigms to then retrospectively justify a theory smacks of very bad science indeed. What do we mean by successful? What do we mean by a genius? The difficulty in defining those terms lies at the heart of this issue. Do IQ tests define genius? God help us if they do. They surely only depict a snapshot of aptitude at one thing alone: IQ tests. We barely understand what we mean by the mind- how on earth are we entitled to declare that we have discerned what an ideal, a superior mind would look like? How on earth could anyone be qualified to do so? As Dreiberg in  Watchmen said, ‘How do you know when the world’s smartest man has gone crazy?’

Oh, and I particularly enjoyed how he described his own 10,000 hour tenure as a journalist before he enjoyed the success of writing fame. See? Extremely successful people (like, er, Malcolm) just need 10,000 hours of practise and a few lucky breaks…..Stop, it Malcolm, you’re making us blush.

The final reason I disagree with this theory is that 10,000 hours, plus karma, still doesn’t seem enough to account for success or otherwise; most teenagers I know have easily sailed past that mileage at either computer gaming, self-abuse or insulting each other with unimaginative texts. I have yet to see any outliers emerge amongst them in those fields. Your average Black Cab driver will knock out forty hours a week on the roads, so give them half a decade and  I expect they’ll be winning the Grand Prix at Monaco. Oh, wait a minute, they don’t…. Because there are so many variables to success, which is such a nebulous, undefined term anyway, that we are so far from devising a science that explains it, that we can barely see it with the Hubble telescope and a zoom lens.

I know kids who knock themselves out with effort in order to do well at school, who have to work twice as hard as some of the other kids in order to achieve the same results that the more able just breeze through. That’s not just down to hours on a treadmill of practise: that’s aptitude. Breath it, lest ears mat be offended, but some people have talents in some areas, while others lack them. I could be charitable and say that everyone’s good at something (and maybe they are) but I can’t support that with a lot of evidence. What I can justify with a lifetime of having my bloody eyes open, is that some people display aptitude, innate ability.

Isn’t innate ability useless without some degree of nurturing? Of course. But we usually practise the things that we enjoy; we often enjoy the things that we’re good at; a cycle of aptitude develops. The baby football player turns into the teenage hopeful because he loves it, and he’s good at it. Mozart goes from creepy child-prodigy to adult virtuoso through hothoused slave-driving from his father, but there are an equal number of prodigies who abandon their childhood circus tricks as soon as their patriarchs are absent, because they despise the hoops through which they are made to jump. Others, like Mozart, grow up speaking and breathing  music.

Why? I can only assume it’s because people have characters; talents; free will; choice. Of course, too many (if not most) people are crushed this way and that by cages of convention, culture and childbirth over which they have no control, perhaps even to the point of helplessness. But the moment we start to deny that humans have volition that can inexplicably contradict the apparently interminable forces of destiny, then we start to deny what it means to be human. In philosophy there is the ‘Black Box’ theory; the idea that we can understand what goes into the human mind (the black box) and what comes out (the behaviour) but we will never be able to fully understand what goes on inside the black box. I’ll buy that. Trying to nail down exactly what genius is, is as hopeless a task as catching Tinkerbell in a butterfly net, or grabbing a fairy tale with an iron claw. It’s a modern Questing Beast, if you like your allusions Arthurian, and I do. (If you’re interested in this, look up New Mysterianism. It’s not a New Age cult; more, I would say, a necessary and rational deferment of judgement.) As Socrates allegedly said, the beginning of wisdom is knowing how little one knows.

So I must be very wise indeed. Until someone proves otherwise, I’ll assume that practise is great, and that hard work is a key factor to getting ahead; that lucky breaks or otherwise are hugely helpful, and that some people are just good at some things- especially if they keep trying. Thanks for the tips, though, Malcolm. I look forward to reading your follow up, Fire is Hot.

Hogwarts in Special Measures: Notice to improve

A bastion of elitism and institutionalised racism

Oh boy, oh boy. A response, below, got me thinking about Harry Potter’s educational experiences. Perhaps you’ve heard of him? I know this is a well worn path, but tinkering around on the wiki entry for Scotland’s premier selective boarding school with a giant squid made comment irresistable. Here are some of the things that immediately struck me:

1. It’s a selective boarding school, with fees payable. What’s the selection criteria? Ability? Faith? Wealth? Er, no, actually, it’s birth. If you’re ‘born magic, or not,’ as the book puts it. So if you’re a member of the lucky sperm club you qualify for entrance. Oh, how jolly egalitarian. Of course, qualification still doesn’t imply admission, as the poorer candidates (like Tom Riddle) find out. You still have to cough up the Galleons, or groats, or whatever the Hell wizards buy their milk with. Dumbledore magnanimously allows that ‘there are funds available for students who cannot afford robes and books.’ Oh, thank ‘ee mazzer. He might have added ‘And snuff, and truffles.’ How can they stand being in the same Highlands as the rabble?

Hermione shouldn’t be hopping about with her knickers in a twist about the House Elves, despite their servile lack of class consciousness; she should be painting placards about the scandalous admission system. Born magic or not? Hmm, so we have an educational hierarchy of pure bloods, half-bloods, squibs and Muggles do we? Can I smell the bonfire of class war? You’re born into one or the other? I believe Gandhi was quite specific about this: the untouchables must be integrated with the mainstream. And I understand Marx had a few words to say on the matter, something about History, and Chains.

Still, is the accident of occult genes any more indicative of inequality than the multiple benefits that fortuitous birth conveys upon any non-magical child? A healthy series of trimesters, sturdy nutrition, the down-payment against stress that financial security brings, the confidence of a supportive nest, and the opportunities of doors opened by friends and family…none of these are the child’s fault, and one can hardly be surprised that they take advantage of them, just as one cannot begrudge a parent for grasping every opportunity for their offspring. Is a magical chromosome any more or less unjust than that?

Perhaps if the school was serious about equality (which it isn’t, but that might not be such a bad thing, because equality is a hydra-headed concept, and at least some of the definitions aren’t universally positive: equal rights for all animals, for example, leads to murder trials for stepping on an ant), then it would have a number of places reserved for non-magical students, who would be led through seven fruitless, soul destroying years of being crap at everything (except hiding from Slytherin predators in the showers), with extra time in their exams (which they would still fail) and having spells made even easier for them (and yet strangely, still uncastable). Then they would be entered for soemthing like ‘Knowledge of How to Open Ye Doors’ GCSE, which they would all then pass with a C, and the school could record that it had entirely complied with the Occult Ability Equality Act, as well as top up their pass rate.

‘So you see, we’re just better than the other people.’

2. Differentiation/ Streaming. While no streaming in lessons is immediately apparent, there’s one system that should have every educator choking on his porridge: the Sorting Hat. Yes, pupils at Hogwarts are selected for Houses again, not by ability, not in order to result in an integrated mix of gender, race and ethnicity…no , they’re selected by character. You heard me. If you show courage, bravery, loyalty, nerve and chivalry, then it’s Gryffindor for you, which I imagine is full of the most self-righteous, arrogant and entitled set of stuffed robes in the known world. ‘Yes, I’m in Gryffindor; yah, actually I am pretty brave and honest, yah.’ The most noble people I know are often the most modest; they would, by default, shrink away from describing themselves with such glowing terms. What must that do to their noodles?

Hufflepuff values hard work, tolerance, loyalty, and fair play. Boy, I bet they’re hammering at the door to get into Hufflepuff. ‘Oh, I got into Hufflepuff, did I? I must be a bit of a thick grunt then. Right-oh. Best get on, then.’

Ravenclaw values intelligence, creativity, learning, and wit’ : all I can say is that they must be even more insufferable than Gryffindor. I would happily spanner anyone from Ravenclaw, just on principle

‘Haw-haw-haw. We’re off to bash the oiks.’

Slytherin house values ambition, cunning, leadership, resourcefulness, and most of all, pure wizard blood. Which means they’re racist. And a bit like Peter Mandelson. Again, they probably have to chain them to their beds at night to prevent them sneaking out into any of the other houses. ‘Bloody Hell, they think I’m David Miliband.’ Can someone tell me why anyone would want to be in Slytherin? Any mention of its members invariably describes them as shifty, arch, sly, crafty, self-serving, vain, arrogant, etc. Most of them seem to have ‘meaty faces’ (if they’re stupid) or ‘thin, pinched faces’ (if they’re clever). Most of them are pretty ugly, unless they’re ‘beautiful and terrible’ like Bellatrix. Far be it from me to criticise the quality of Potter’s Pen, but I think she takes physiognomy a bit far. Everyone in Slytherin is a bastard. And I know the horse has bolted a bit, given that the series is over, but they’re all on Voldemorts’s side. What; is Dumbledore taking crazy pills, and inclusion to Olympic levels? ‘Yes, we’re keeping them all at school. Yes, the bastards too. They have every right to learn magic, even if they will use it for violence and mayhem. What?’

Much has been said about the intrinsic unfairness of selection by ability. Not much has been said about the problems of selection by character. Talk about pigeon-holing; talk about stereotyping. ‘You’re a bad ‘un’ says the Hat (a HAT, I’d like to add), ‘Off you pop with the other bad ‘uns. Ah, now youre a swell guy; take a seat next to Harry Potter.’ The kids must droop under the expectations of that bloody hat. I wonder if any of them fantasise about dropping the halo and getting a bit snaky for once; or not plotting the downfall of the Headmaster and actually perfroming something altruistic? A few years in the Cauldron of Character Caste (good name for the next book, incidentally) and there’s no chance for any of  the poor buggers.

‘Screw the House-Elves. I LIKE my robes ironed.’

3. Divination. There’s actually a subject called Divination. You know, where you can see the future? That must make predicting grades a bit easier. Although it doesn’t seem to work most of the time, which seems to imply that it’s a bit of a non-subject, like Life Skills or GCSE/ BTEC equivalents…

Ah, you could go on about this stuff forever….

Teaching styles in the movies #1: Mr Han, The Karate Kid (2010 remake)

‘True wisdom…comes from LEA, not from within.’

I’ve been meaning to write about the diverse ways in which teaching is presented in popular media. How better to combine two of my passions: films and pedagogy? Apart from playing films in classes (or ‘multimedia texts’ as my lesson plans refer to them) of course. And what better place to start than with Jackie Chan’s crowd-pleasing turn as the Mr Miyagi for the Bieber generation? Harold Zwart’s franchise reboot moves the coming-of-age fairy tale from California to China, and replaces Ralph Macchio’s buck-toothed American everyteen with Will Smith’s terrifyingly precocious Mini-me, Jaden. But the teaching premise remains the same: unskilled innocent with a heart learns martial arts in order to smash evil, win a girl’s heart, and along the way discovers that in order to become a man, the first person you have to conquer is yourself. You know; that sort of thing. The update keeps its cool, preserves the main motifs that made the original a success, and doesn’t fumble the casting, giving us a child star who succeeds in not looking like a hateful brat, and a Sensei father figure, nailed by the inimitable Chan.

The relationship between the two is the heart of this film: the cocky, wilful, egoistic child (Dre) who thinks he knows Kung-Fu, and the inscrutable (yeah, I said it) Obi-Wan who offers to show him the path to killer combos and death blows (Mr Han). So what kind of teacher is he?

‘Still want to text your mum?’

Well let’s look at the evidence, as an Ofsted inspector might say. We first see him as a maintenance man, and in fact when Dre meets him for the first time he’s eating his noodles, looking miserable and refusing to answer a kid knocking on his door. Much like any other teacher at lunch time. When he finally comes round to fix the hot water (perhaps supply work was a bit thin on the ground, and he was moonlighting in between contacts), he watches Dre feebly imitating the Karate moves he sees on TV; like any teacher unable to bear watching some snotty eleven year old dance about like an idiot and think he’s the bee’s knees, he calls to him. And when he predictably gets ignored by the bossy man-child, he does what every real teacher can only dream of: he throws something at him. Granted, it’s just a toothpaste tube lid, but can there be a teacher in the land who watched this and didn’t, at least in their hearts, punch the air and go, ‘Yes!’ then wiping away a tear of joy? Better still, Dre rubs his neck and says, ‘Did you just throw this at me?’ Which in a UK classroom would be the first step on a long and torturous road that led to an expulsion meeting with a GTC disciplinary panel. Here, Han just ignores him and tells him how to use the hot water. We already know this guy is going to be like Rocky, and I’m screen printing T-shirts with his face on the front like Che Guevara.

And we haven’t even got to the teaching yet. Dre, realising that his girlish capoeira will just get him spannered by the local hoodlums, appeals to Han for lessons. You heard me. The kid asked the teacher to teach him. The motivation couldn’t be clearer: don’t get spannered. It is unlikely that any of your students will ever see differential calculus in  the same light, unless the bad lads in your manor are considerably more mathematical than normal. When Mr Han takes him to the Dojo to resolve his bullying problem peacefully, he fails spectacularly, to the point that Dre is now committed to entering an amateur ass-kicking tournament, so he can be systematically bullied in public by a queue of kids from the LSU, voluntarily. The motivation to learn Kung-Fu has now become considerably more acute. Could any reward system of merit stickers and stars provide quite such an incentive?

Better still, Han says, ‘No’. The right to refuse to teach is one that only exists in British teachers’ fantasies; for very good reasons, too, otherwise about a third of the population would find themselves with a lot more time on their hands between the ages of 4 and 16. But this is China. And also Han doesn’t work for anyone. No, he’s more of a self-employed tutor, operating out of his house/ car shop. It is unlikely that Mr Han has ever seen a memo from the DfES, let alone sat in on an INSET and wept as somebody with a Power point banged on about Learning Hats. It is also unlikely that Ofsted would smile on the teacher repairing a car in the same classroom as the students.

‘Bad news, kid: the Student Council’s been disbanded.’

But then, there’s a lot that Ofsted might frown upon with Han’s pedagogy. Let’s cut past the obvious lack of professional credentials, the implicit unavailability of his Criminal Records Bureau check (which, given his record of careless driving and manslaughter could complicate his recruitment into the state sector), and go straight to his teaching. This is where he really puts gas in the engine.

Not for Mr Han the petty three-part lesson, no-sir. The classic ‘Wipe on/ wipe off’ motif has been replaced by a far more modern, ‘Take your jacket off/ put your jacket on’ mantra. That’s it: straight into a main lesson activity. Where, you might ask, are the lesson aims? Where is the title of the lesson? How is the student supposed to put the lesson into context with the rest of his learning? Answers there are none. Pick the bloody jacket up. Put it on. Repeat. I’m off for some noodles and a fag, keep it up. Even when Dre challenges the teacher to explain why he’s doing it, all that Mr Han says is, ‘Hmm, something missing. Attitude.’ The poor boy is clearly unable to develop his current content into a cohesive educational entity. How on Earth can he be learning?

Ah, that’s because Mr Han is a sneaky one. Like Miyagi before him, he’s been getting Dre to rehearse Kung-Fu until it becomes part of his muscle memory; at least he’s paying attention to the Kinaesthetic part of Visual/ Auditory/ Kinaesthetic learning. But wait a minute, our internal  Ofsted inspector says, this is repetition! This is rote learning! Mr Han has been forcing poor Dre into mindless, boring drilling and practise, which is clearly contrary to the theme of enjoying every lesson, and engaging students in their learning activities. It is, therefore, clearly not good teaching, despite the fact that it has done exactly what it was intended to do and transformed him into a pint-sized Bruce Lee. Oh dear, that’s his first ‘Unsatisfactory’. It’s not looking good. Perhaps he should have got Dre to work in groups with someone of the same ability, and written a poem about how they felt about Kung-Fu, before demonstrating learning using traffic light cards and lollipops? That would have encouraged independent learning, and also ticked a few boxes for SEAL along the way.

It gets  worse, or better depending on your attitude to educational philosophy. Mr Han takes Dre to a monastery where all kinds of crazy cats are getting their groove on, doing the splits over waterfalls and balancing on vertiginous gargoyles on one leg while snake charming turgid Cobras (because, you know, just doing it on the ground wasn’t quite dangerous and special enough). Wait a minute: a trip? Was a Risk Assessment done? I’d like to see you get ‘balancing on vertiginous gargoyles on one leg while snake charming turgid Cobras’ down to ‘Low Risk’. Risk assess that.

‘No, you can’t have your mobile back.’

And of course, there’s the delicate issue of the pupil teacher ratio. 1:1 is an excellent situation to have, of course, but is it cost effective? And shouldn’t there be some kind of redundancy system, where an exra teacher comes along in case a pupil has to be taken home, or a teacher falls ill? Sorry, Mr Han, but you just haven’t thought this through. And I won’t even mention the train ride home when Dre falls asleep on your lap and you pat him affectionately on the shoulkder blades, because frankly this is an observation, not an expose.

Safety issues continue to feature prominently: the teacher cancels the lessons because ‘too much of a good thing is a bad thing,’ or something; so Dre bunks off to the arcades, taking a G&T student with him. Now that’s the kind of school I want to work in. ‘Sorry kids, but you know what? I’m a bit tired. Half-day.’ Of course, the G&T love interest nearly misses her once-in-a-lifetime chance to get into the Beijing Academy of Music, but that’s what happens when you let kids of mixed ability hang out in a co-educational environment.

(On a side note, her own teachers are remarkably unsympathetic; they appear aloof and tyrannical. They too force drill her remorselessly, although without the charm of Mr Han. Mind you, she does appear to be an Olympic level violinist, so swings and roundabouts really. She really should have been allowed to pick her own instrument, practise when she felt like it, and be allowed to discuss in pairs if there was a better shape for a violin. Now that would have been real learning).

And what happens on the impromptu snow day (although there wasn’t any snow, of course; Mr Han just felt like bashing his car up a bit with a mallet. Who hasn’t?)? Well, he gets smashed and goes postal in his workshop. I think every teacher can recognise the value of letting off some steam from time to time, although most of them keep the sake rampages confined to staff parties and leaving speeches. Then, in perhaps the most touching and also touching unbelievable moments in the movie, Dre, the student, coaxes Mr Han, the teacher, out of his car, his depression and misery using a couple of bamboo poles and the invitation to shadow-box in the yard outside. I can’t imagine something I’d rather do less in the middle of a booze-induced episode of self-hatred and angst, but whatever presses your buttons.

‘Have you been fighting with that nice drunk teacher again?’

Best of all, Dre’s mother, properly worried that her son hasn’t returned home by stupid o’clock, peeks round the corner, sees that her only offspring is tied to a drunk man by two poles, apparently fighting each other, and she smiles, making  a face that I can only describe as ‘Bless them.’ I would have called Child Services on her, if it wasn’t for the fact that she’s a fictional character, and I’m not sure that a country with a huge child labour problem has a lot of call for Social Services.

Eventually Dre makes it, of course (I was going to say SPOILER ALERT! but you’d have to be a bit of a vegetable not to see where the film’s going. But if you’re still struggling, may I suggest a small wager on the bad guy to win?). He enters the tournament- which is essentially an enormous exam-based assessment, with no elements of coursework, which surely discriminates against girls, group workers and more consistent, methodical learners- and slugs his way to the final. But before he does, disaster strikes: he’s nearly crippled by a student from an even more teacher-led school (if you can imagine), and it looks like he’ll have to withdraw from the last match. He begs Mr Han to apply Chinese First Aid to relieve the pain. Perhaps amazingly, Mr Han says, ‘Why do you want to continue? You have nothing more to prove?’ Mr Han is clearly thinking about his A*-C pass rate- his students need to either enter the exams and pass, or be removed entirely in case they damage the statistics. Mr Han is wise, in his way. But Dre convinces him that he’ll do buck the national average and bring home the points for the old school. What a hero of formative assessment.

Satisfying teacher moments in Karate Kid 2010 #322: the ending, where the students of the nasty dojo unanimously leave their unscrupulous, victory obsessed Head Master (he’s even more concerned about league tables. ‘No mercy!’ he makes them scream) and decide to line up in deference to Mr Han, in an outstanding display of Student Voice and tacitly, customer choice. As Michael Gove says, families will send their children to popular schools, institutions will compete, and improve thereby. Evil dojo man will no doubt be reflecting upon that as he counts the loss of student premiums due to the downturn of applicants to his school.

Suggest Mr Han goes into Special Measures.

Mr Han ends the movie with an Ofsted grading of Unsatisfactory. No structure, no aims, no plenary, no agreed classroom rules, no lesson plans, no schemes of work, no visible means of defining progress achieved during lessons…quite frankly, I’d be surprised if he was even allowed to step foot in a British school. He is, however, a world class expert in Kung-Fu, has transformed a skinny runt into the Hero of the Beach, and turned a boy into a young man in the process. I guess he’ll just have to console himself with that, and hope that one day, if he’s lucky, he might be able to scrape a ‘3’ in an observation.

Mr Han: Legends of Teaching #1

Evil detentions: It’s your time you’re wasting

‘Can’t I do something ironic instead?’

Ah, the good old fashioned detention, unlovely and unloved by teacher and student alike. But if you spend more than a week in a school, you’ll be on first name terms with them pretty sharp, because they remain the stand-by of sanctions, the .45 in the teacher’s naughty clip. Let me lay out the logic behind their invention, and if I go too fast, I’ll refer you back to the start of this paragraph:

Kid mucks about; kid gets detention; kid doesn’t enjoy detention; kid associates mucking about with something he doesn’t enjoy. Desired outcome? A reduction in mucking about.

Like I say, it’s pretty complex. Actually, no, it’s simple; it’s as simple as a lever on a pivot. And that’s what it is: a machine for reducing poor behaviour using the most obvious, intuitively visible axioms known to psychology- we avoid things we dislike. Jeremy Bentham, eat your heart out, because ‘Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.’ I believe that master practitioners of this theory refer to the carrot and the stick, but I don’t want to get too technical at this point.

And you know what? It works. How about that? I can hear logic Nazis hopping around right now, saying, ‘No it doesn’t! It doesn’t always work!’ Relax, amigos, we know that. Detentions aren’t the universal answer to misbehaviour any more than a great big hug can mend a broken heart. But they’re a bloody good tool to have in your bat-belt. Most kids don’t like them (unless they’re supernaturally lonely), and the classroom practitioner will find that if he applies these more or less fairly, with rigour and consistency, then the majority of kids will learn that crime doesn’t pay.

Of course they don’t always work. Usually for these reasons:

1. They’re not applied fairly. Give out loads on a Monday when your head hurts or your patience is short, and the kids will rightly judge you to be a despot, ruling by whim. Cue: La Résistance française
2. They’re not applied routinely: if you say that throwing snowballs in the classroom will lead to a spell in the Big House, then mean it.
3. The kids try the old ‘not turning up’ trick. Ah, Moriarty, you escape my clutches again. Will we grapple thus forever? But the reason that many kids pull the vanishing act is because they know- they know, the little tinkers- that sometimes a tired, overworked teacher will forget, or forget to care about it, and fail to follow up. And I use the word ‘fail’ for a reason, because the kid then learns that sometimes just ignoring the teacher’s sanctions will lead to…well, no consequence at all. A dangerous learning experience.

Now, ‘reason why they sometimes don’t work number 4’ is the reason why I’m writing this right now and not building my snowman to greater heights of raffishness (I’ve sourced carrot and coal, but finding a scarf I don’t mind rotting in a puddle is a challenge). Straight in at number four is the idea that- inexplicably- some teachers think a detention isn’t supposed to be unpleasant. Now, most teachers don’t enjoy punishing others; there’s not many people who would enjoy deliberately making another human being uncomfortable, unless you were, say, Jeremy Kyle or Donald Trump. Congratulations: it means you’re a human being. I’d be far more worried if a teacher rubbed their hands together and said, ‘Oh boy, now I get to make some kids sit behind desks as a punishment!’ Oddball; quit teaching and go write letters to the Daily Mail about immigration.

The reason why I bring this up is because one of the most common questions I get on the Behaviour Forums is ‘what should I get the kids to do in detentions?’ To which I always answer, ‘Something ‘orrible.’ And I mean it. Because if it doesn’t involve something that they will try to avoid in the future, then it loses all value as a deterrent. You might as well not do it. Which means that, no matter how well meaning you are, you must never turn a detention into Play Time; never sit with them and have a ten minute ‘The Chat’ (definite article deliberate) asking them what football team they support; never have them sitting with their jackets on texting their pals, telling them what a spanner you are. It needs to chafe. Pinch, even.

So what does this look like? Nothing draconian. Get them writing lines, the sanction that time forgot. Why not? It’s boring, and works beautifully as a metaphor of  the intrinsic futility of being an arse. Or get them copying out of a book. Or get them doing some extra work (tasks don’t need to be entirely useless). But not doing homework (because all you’ve done then is displace work at home into the classroom- you’ve probably given them an extra twenty minutes at home on C.O.D.), not talking to their mates, and not, not , not doing something they enjoy.

So I slap my forehead in frustration when I hear advice like I read in this week’s TES, when A J Booker (who runs a website called…well, see the title of this post) suggests that teachers create imaginative and creative tasks for kids to do in detentions. He calls them ‘evil’. Hmm. I’ve read a few of them, and they sound extremely odd- some of them are like games; some of them are thinking puzzles; some of them belong in the category of ‘ironic punishments’. But he seems rather pleased that the kids think they’re cool (kids don’t say cool any more. I checked with some kids), and that some of them even looked forward to them. Now, I have no axe to grind against Mr Booker personally, who I am sure is a model of integrity and professionalism, but I have an entire dwarfish army of axes, ready for sharpening when I hear that teachers should make kids do something groovy and edgy in detentions. Grind, grind, grind.

The reason I think this is pretty much the exact opposite of what kids should do in detentions is because of my initial argument: that detentions should deter. If you give a kid something useful to do, where he feels valued, empowered, and engaged, then isn’t that a reward rather than a punishment? While I applaud Mr Booker’s ingenuity (and I really do; I admire any professional who reflects upon education in a meaningful way) I can’t emphasise enough how wrong this all is. The point is that you want kids to not want to come to detentions. Their purpose, in a way, is to annihilate the reason for their own existence. They’re the kamikaze pilots of education.

The second reason I don’t agree is that new teachers (especially) are paralysed with enough guilt already: are my lessons engaging enough? Have I differentiated for everyone, including the ones that aren’t there? Have I nurtured their human rights? Have we played Ker-Plunk! enough? Did I recognise their voice? They don’t need another reason to feel like failures: are my detentions engaging enough? Give me strength– at least enough to brain myself with a frying pan so that I can wake up and hope it was all a dream. At the end of the day, when the kids who have told you how rubbish your lesson was, or who bleated and wailed at the injustice of having to work, return to your cave, the last thing you need to lose a bead of sweat over is devising an ironic, cryptic and delicious punishment…that isn’t actually a punishment.

‘At last! I was freezing!’

Punishing children is unpleasant. It needs to be entered into with the cool neutral attitude of a technician, not the ardour of a pervert. We don’t do it because it makes us feel good. We don’t do it because it makes them feel good. We do it because it’s a tool to improve behaviour. We do it because we want the kids to realise that behaving like a prat will only damage their own long term interests, and that of others.

There’s nothing evil about it. We’re on the side of the angels. And tough love is still love.

It’s a wonderful job: a Christmas Story

Finally watched Frank Capra’s ‘It’s a wonderful life‘ last night, and if you are one of the two or three dozen that haven’t yet met this charming American filmic myth, then let me be the latest in a long line of people to say, somewhat redundantly, that it’s a masterpiece. (In other news: fire is hot). It is, for those of you living in Survivalist communes in Nebraska or belonging to an Amish choir, a tale of the little guy who makes a difference in his community, being rescued from the brink of despair by a poignant, Christmas Carol meme of ‘what if?’ Lionel Barrymore, I’m afraid to say, is as wooden as Patsy Kensit as the Guardian Angel. But Jimmy Stewart can play likeable everyman characters in a way that makes Tom Hanks appear edgy and controversial.

(I must add that, for the majority of my adult life, I was under the illusion that It’s a Wonderful Life was directed by Franz Kafka. I always suspected it was a bit fishy, but I didn’t want to say anything openly. I look forward to seeing Jimmy Cagney in The Metamorphosis.)
So what? This is a teaching blog, not the mirror of Narcissus. But it’s relevant because of a central theme that rang a tuning fork in my hard heart: we barely notice the differences we make in other peoples’ lives, and unlike George Bailey, we rarely meet a divine messenger to point out how things might have been, unlike say, Scrooge, or Saul of Tarsus, both of whom got special supernatural assistance to guide them back onto Straight Street. Coincidentally, yesterday two things happened that figuratively speaking, showed me the ghosts of Christmas past and future.

The first one was a simple card from an ex-pupil, one who had left several years previously. Because I’m not entirely a whore, I’ll spare you the details, but in summary it was a kind, thoughtful thank you for helping him get through his A-levels, and for contributing in some small way to his present position at University. I suspect that in years to come I’ll be greeted by boxes of flaming avian offal pushed through my letter box once students appreciate the debt they now enjoy thanks to my goading, but I’ll just forward that to D-Cam and the Old Etonian Society. The card was nice; it came at the end of a day when I had to deal with some difficult behaviour that, while entirely routine, required the proportionate routine responses, paperwork, and colleague-bothering that we know and love when it comes to working the system. All resolved, lots of good outcomes and conversations, but tiring and time consuming. The sort of thing that eats away any spare time you might have jealously accumulated in the noble hope that you might actually be able to achieve something you want done, as opposed to meeting the endless requirements of working in any heirarchal institution.

The second thing was beautiful; a reply from a correspondant on the TES Behaviour Forums to whom I had offered some of my unworthy advice several days back. Normally I don’t expect replies, because, well because everyone’s busy and frankly I (and many other regulars) do it both because we enjoy it, and perhaps because we should. I shouldn’t be amazed- but I still am- how frequently behaviour in an internet context can degenerate so quickly into oddball aggression and nastiness. Mostly the forum is calm, mannered and polite, and it feels like a Platonic exchange of ideas between adults and professionals. But sometimes, just sometimes, some miserable troll rocks up, no doubt sitting at home in their underwear, eating chocolate, staring at their calendar of the Saturdays and sweating. Their odd antics are too unlovely to be called strategies, but they usually revolve around posting creepy, near-the-knuckle questions that often have a frighteningly sexual tone to them, or reacting to any sugestions like cranky children, taking offence in the strangest of ways. They’re like the big, hard guys in pubs that spill their own pints and then say, ‘Did you spill my pint?’ Except these cyberknobs wouldn’t dream of challenging anyone unless it was through the curtain of anonymity that broadband affords them.

Every week or so, amongst the grown-ups and the professionals, you get one of these, and they can make you think, ‘Why do I bother? I don’t have to take this sh*t,’ especially if you’ve spent twenty minutes of your valuable, non-reclaimable existence crafting a response to their questions. But once in a while you get a response like the one I got yesterday. To be brief, it was a teacher I advised who responded by saying thank you, that what I (and OldAndrew) had said had helped, and that it had given her a bit of confidence to carry on when things looked a little bleak.

I’m under no illusions about the depth or the quality of the advice I give on the forum; I’m just another teacher, like many others, plugging away and hoping that what we do is the right thing. I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers, nor do I imagine that my opinions are either definitive or final. The same with my teaching; I work my ass off, care my ass off, and try my best to make sure that I’m doing exactly what I’m paid to do at least, and then some if there’s time. Why? Because there’s nothing more important than what happens to the kids in our care; that’s our duty, and it’s a sacred one. This isn’t a job, that you walk into, and punch out at five o’clock; this is a vocation, like the priesthood or cabaret. You have to love your subject, love working with kids, and love teaching them. If you don’t, you won’t ever be truly happy doing it. But if you do, then you’ll see that it’s one of the best, most important roles you can ever have, outside of parenthood (I imagine).

Many new teachers enter the profession wanting- demanding– to change the world, to transform the lives of children like Samuel Jackson in Coach Carter; and good for them that they want to. But then they find their passion and enthusiasm are cold currency in a climate that requires tenacity, dedication and rigour before they can often even reach the ones they want to help. Many give up because their illusions are shattered. Many more persevere, but smoulder with resentment and disappointment that things weren’t fair, that things weren’t the way that they expected them to be; they stay on, they teach, they end up hating it. I have nothing but sympathy and professional camaraderie for both groups.

But teachers should realise that they will never change the entire world by themselves, no more than you could push the earth out of its orbit by putting your shoulder to a cliff side. That’s not what we do; that’s not what anyone does. The way you change the world is one square metre at a time; look in front of you and say, ‘What needs fixing? How can I help?’ Then you do what you are capable of, no more, no less; and you go home and sleep at night, not kept awake by guilt demons that whisper at you, ‘You failed, nothing has changed, nothing is better. Give up.’

That’s what we do; we plug away and we try to make the world a better place. You might never ‘transform’ a child’s life; but that’s not the benchmark of good teaching. You do your best, and you give them the best damn education you can. You provide them with safe, supportive environments characterised by discipline and tough love. You do your best. And mark this: your best will not, sometimes, be enough, and you will fail, and children will pass through your care and fall off the map, seemingly no better for having encountered you. But we must- we must- keep going, because many of them will be helped, and some of them will be helped a lot. We play the odds, we play a long game.

We are small, but significant links in other peoples’ lives, in a chain that goes on forever in both directions; but links we are, and as supporting characters in the melodramas of the lives of others, we are required to ask one simple question: do we want to help, or harm? Everything else follows from that. It is an honour to be able to assist a student into adulthood; it is an honour to be able to offer advice to a fellow professional when they need some TLC, because I remember the times when I have needed support and assistance. Like George Bailey after his illumination, I am grateful every day for the chance to play the smallest part in the lives of other humans. That, dear friends, is why after moments like yesterday I felt like running down the High Street of Anytown, America, wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and laughing in the face of Mr Potter.

It’s a wonderful job.

TES Live Tour part 2

I’ve been invited into TES Towers on Monday for a live webchat between 5 and 6.30, for another round of applying my monkey fingers to speed-typing requirements. Please feel free to log on if you fancy watching me misspell ‘differentiate’ for the seventh time in a row, and differently each time. I’ll be smoking cigars and writin’ pearls for ya.

The Importance of Teaching part 1: why every government only wants us for our bodies, not our brains

Education gets so much attention from a succession of lusty, tongue-tied ministerial suitors that I think they fancy us. And who can blame them? We’re gorgeous.

Why is it that the education sector gets groped, man-handled and thrown against the barn door more than, say transport or agriculture (although those blushing beauties don’t have long before their dance cards are filled too)? Why does education get all the love letters, the ministerial flirting, the protestations of love and devotion, the flowers, the promises, that this time, things will be different…? But it’s not long before they reveal their true colours; once their names are above the doors, the candlelit dinners are a thing of the past, and before you know it, we’re expected to have dinner ready on the table as they rock in whenever they fancy, reeking of port and agreeable dining. Ah, l’amour.

I’ve been reading the White Paper this week- who hasn’t? It’s like the latest Stieg Larsen; if you don’t know how it ends then nobody will talk to you in the staffroom. And I’ve been looking for a way into writing about it, but every time I thought of an approach, I kept thinking, ‘No, that’s not it- there’s too much to chew over.’ So I’ve decided, not unlike a kid with a time-out card, to ‘give it space to breathe’. I’ll post on different aspects of it at different times. Sometimes it feels like writing a travel guide to Asia- there’s just too much in it to do justice to all at once.

I wanted to write today about a broader idea, which I have raffishly alluded to via the tortured metaphor of the ‘maiden defending her honour’ meme: the extraordinary attraction Education holds for reformers and future incumbents to the keys of power. It doesn’t take much analysis to bring to mind the popular Jesuit refrain, ‘Give me the child and I will give you the man.’ This, like any piece of intuitive wisdom, is so obvious that it barely needs stating, but upon analysis reveals depths beyond the obvious. The idea that the effects of childhood are the precedents that give birth to the antecedents of adulthood lead somewhat mundanely to the theory that we are products, at least in some ways of our histories. So far, so bleedin obvious.

This is where the Big Dogs of politics pick up the scent. They can smell opportunity where none exists (see: Duck Houses; moats), and recognise a chew toy when they see one. There is no state sector so amenable to radical reform than education; no other area of civil life where so much can change so quickly. Why? Because children, unlike adults will tolerate unusual amounts of upset to their routine without complaint, largely because they have no frame of reference against which to contrast and compare their experiences. In other words, they’re much better at doing what they’re told than adults.

And, the effects of revolutions are felt much less quickly in education than in other areas; the consequences of a change in policy can take a generation before the wheel turns and the outcomes are known. Therefore any change seems much less radical than it actually is. The introduction of TAs, the disparagement of phonics, an emphasis on skills over content, all of these policies may cause disagreement at first, but the sky remains firmly unfallen upon their introduction. It’s only with the liberty of perspective that we can assess the impact on millions of children. Poorly thought educational reforms are the political equivalent of leaving a dead rat underneath someone’s floor boards: you can only smell it months later.

There’s a third reason, and it’s one that is discussed constantly, but rarely explicitly; the aims of education. Because although you’ll rarely see this topic considered openly in the newspapers, your attitude towards education’s aims will ultimately decide what you think education should do. What is education for, after all? What is it we are hoping to achieve? It’s a far from obvious answer, and the philosophical differences in approaches lead to huge practical differences in outcome. For example, is education meant to…

  • Enable children to flourish at what they are good at?
  • Create a work force tailored to the economic needs of the community?
  • Establish harmony and stability in society?
  • Keep children off the streets in order to reduce crime?
  • Guide children into adulthood?
  • Teach children about a broad range of subjects?
  • Focus on a specific set of core skills and knowledge?

The list goes on. The temptation to say, ‘Well, a bit of all of these,’ might grip us, until upon reflection we see that some of them exist in tension with the others, in the same way that a hungry fox exists ‘in tension’ with a coop of nervous chickens. Ministerial aims are often so glibly expressed in the opening statements of policy documents that our brains, in order to stave off narcoleptic shut down, glaze over until we get to the less rhetorical portions. But they are important to winkle out of any White Papers, even if the authors themselves are only barely aware of their ‘hidden’ values, the assumptions they make about human nature and the purpose of society, and the role of the state.

Because that is what these reforms- and any reforms- are inevitably about. They are never just a fix for this problem or that. That’s management. No, a brace of new policies, especially when accompanied by a clear-out at the top seat, expresses an ideology which finds arms and legs in the legislation it inspires.

And that’s why this White Paper, like its ancestors before it from Baker, Morris, etc is so important: education is the key area of reform where political philosophy can be divined, like the entrails of a goat in the hands of a soothsayer (‘Sooth! I say’). Schools, unfortunately, are the testing laboratories for ideology in a way that would never be tolerated by surgeons or drivers. Can you imagine a surgeon being told by a (non medically trained) Whitehall gonk that he was holding his scalpel the wrong way, and if he wanted to be graded as ‘Satisfactory’ in the Hospital review then he should try holding it between his elbows? I suggest not. Put two pounds on a litre of petrol overnight, and overnight there’d be a by election that reached from Orkney to Brighton.

But schools? Kids? The ones that don’t vote?

Igor? bring me a brain…..