Tom Bennett

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Teaching styles in the Movies #4: Lionel Logue, The King’s Speech

Too soon?

In a film of many wonderful moments, there’s an especially wonderful moment at the beginning of The King’s Speech, Tom Hooper’s Oscar hoover currently tarting around an Odeon near you. Prince Albert, the future King George VI is suffering yet another quack cure to remedy his lifelong stammer; this time, the portly sawbones is trying to get him to entertain a host of marbles in his royal mouth in the manner of a small boy’s pocket. This state, plus the act of speaking through them will, the fat quack assures him, lead to the exorcism of his oral awkwardness.

Of course it does no such thing, instead nearly bringing about what would surely be history’s least dignified regicide: death by marble-gargling. Understandably, Albert stalks off in a hissy fit, spitting slimy marbles on a perfectly good regency carpet and undoubtedly bemoaning his inability to have the man locked in the Tower. ‘It worked for Demosthenes,’ says the good Doctor, in his defence (moments after recommending that smoking will assist his attempts to be cured by relaxing the throat. I suspect it would take a snout of more Caribbean qualities to have that effect).

My room, my rules

As soon as I saw that scene I was hugging myself with joy, suspecting that the witch doctor was presented in order to magnify the man who followed him- I could smell an emergent movie hero of education. Sure enough, I wasn’t disappointed with Geoffrey Rush’s magnificent tutor Lionel Logue. Rush, who appears to have remained the same age for around forty years, has a humble first few scenes, without any foreshadowing of the great events in which he is to play a pivotal part. Albert’s wife, the Duchess of York meets with Logue at his modest offices and at first flirts with discretion about the identity of her intended patient; unconvinced, she is forced to reveal that the patient will be Albert, at which point Lionel endures a visible spasm of surprise.

‘So you’ll be expected to treat him at the palace,’ says the Duchess.
‘No. He has to come here. Prince or no prince. My room, my rules,’ says the stubborn Logue.

Lionel, you had me at ‘No’.

‘Hitler’s b-b-b-beastly.’

As soon as that syllable passed your teeth I knew that this was a role model for everyone. How many teachers have forgotten this simple sentiment? How many children are even aware of it? For a start very few of us have anything like a room we can call our own, one we can dress and tend and build in our image; for the majority of teachers, the school day is a diaspora as we trudge like Hebrew slaves from well to well, our arms stacked with papers, books and pencil cases in an improbable, wobbling tower. Few joys define the itinerant teacher’s classroom experience as much as arriving at the room five minutes after the students, only to find that in your absence they have telepathically decided to enact ‘The Lord of the Flies’ in an attempt at thirty-second theatre. If you’re lucky they’ll recognise that your part is that of the Naval Officer at the end. If not, you’re Piggy.

By that point the damage is done, and can only be undone, or (more likely) partially amended; the teacher spends the next five minutes rearranging anarchic seating plans, defusing tribal warfare, and obtaining unanimity of direction and gaze. The room was theirs, and you have to wrest it from them.

I led some seminars yesterday with the TES on Behaviour Management with two lovely groups; one issue that one group focused on was the question of owning the room. I emphasised that one of the fundamentals of running a class is that the students perceive the space in which you coexist as being under your stewardship, and that this could be achieved by imagining that it actually did belong to you; in that case, no one but you has the authority to open windows, adjust heating, rearrange furniture etc. This lets the class know that you are in charge of the environment as well as their custody. Logue’s explicit insistence that his treatment room is his space is a reflection of this necessity. He reinforces it further when Albert, finally persuaded by desperation to attend the sessions, tries to give it the big ‘I am’ with Logue, pulling out a Benson and Hedges (I like to think) and looking for someone poor off whom to light a match. Logue doesn’t let us down, demanding that the sessions be a smoke-free zone, Prince or no bloody Prince.

Nobody was born to play uptight, awkward, testy Englishmen like Colin Firth; it’s his superpower, and somewhere, Hugh Grant is weeping in homage to his ability to display the splutter and phlegm of a disappointed, dis-empowered monarch. ‘How do I address you?’ enquires Logue. ‘Your Royal Highness,’ he is told, ‘The first time; after that, Your Majesty.’ ‘Bertie, I think,’ says the obviously suicidal Logue. This isn’t madness, though. This is Sparta. My room, my rules.

Oscar bait.

Every teacher needs to fix this as a North Star in their self-image: my room, my rules. We don’t negotiate this premise; we don’t compromise, or prevaricate about it. We don’t discuss which rules we should have, or who’s really in charge: it’s a first principle of classroom management. If the room doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to everyone, or no one, or more likely, the strongest arm and the loudest throat in the room. If you’re not comfortable with the idea of being in charge, you have no business being in charge of children, their well being, their education or the sliver of their futures to which you are the custodian.

It worked for Demosthenes

Returning to the well-meaning, useless witch doctor at the start of the movie, I was struck by how similar he was, in origin and execution, to the current predicament of the teacher. I’m not suggesting that anyone is trying to stuff sterilised glass balls in anyone’s mouth (although if they are, it would make a tremendous Swan-Song case for the GTC). Drowning in a priori assumptions, he attempts to apply fashionable (in this case ancient) orthodoxies to real-life situations, despite an almost intuitive apprehension on the part of everyone else that this might be as useful as a telephone made of bananas. When I entered the Secret Garden of Education, I was assured that students had VAK (verbal, audio or kinaesthetic) learning style preferences; that red ink would cauterise their emotional growth; that if everyone tried on different learning hats then we’d all graduate with firsts, and that if you enforced a no-hands-up rule, the dull child would blossom into a savant. These dogma are toppling as I write, have toppled in pockets of enlightened practise, but still endure, like superstitions, in many dark places.

This is the appalling place that education finds itself in now; an unimaginable position of barbarity and shamanism- in the 21st century– where the latest piece of research is assimilated without challenge into established practise; where axioms of good learning and behaviour, such as an assertive discipline centred around reward and sanctions, or teacher-led education, have been vilified by a progressive Mafia of theorists and social engineers who often have never seen the inside of a classroom unless they had a clipboard or questionnaire in their roguish hands.

If they learned, you taught them: experience trumps theory in the classroom

Logue is raffish, often rude, eccentric and at times confrontational, but he has one thing in his favour; his methods worked. What he didn‘t have was a Ph.D. in speech therapy, or a placatory certificate, which is probably just as well, because while he was antagonising the future monarch, people who were qualified speech therapists were stuffing marbles into people’s throats and asking them to sing Rule Britannia. What he had was a track record of helping people with stammers, using techniques that he learned from humble acting beginnings, on poor chaps back from the trenches who bottled up their shell shock and demons by stuttering.

‘Well if it’s so uncomfortable, put the marbles in your mouth.’

In some ways that’s how the skill of teaching progresses: we enter classrooms with some theory, some character (if we’re lucky) and then we see what works. We try tough; we try tender; we try treats; we try torments. We learn (if we’re paying attention, if we care) how to speak, how to command, how to encourage and stimulate, when to reinforce and when to question. These aren’t skills that can be delivered from books and lectures; these have to be experienced in order to be assimilated. This isn’t memorising a route; this is riding a bike.

Of course theories play a part; the wisdom of those who have preceded us is an essential element of this process, as is self-discipline, honesty, and the capacity to intelligently reflect on our experiences. I have learned by far the greatest portion of my approach in the classroom, then pondering on my bike journey home. Only a fraction of my practise was born in the lecture theatre or tutorial room- it was simply too remote to the experience of teaching.

Lionel Logue may have lacked certification; but his techniques worked, so despite the attempt to discredit him by the Archbishop of Canterbury (who in the movie helpfully stands in as the Forces of the Reactionary Establishment, which is kind of him) Albert trusts him, and his trust is paid off in an elegant crescendo at the end, where Bertie apparently defeats Hitler through an unusual way of descending onto phonic plosives, or saying ‘f*ck, b*gger’ in between difficult consonants. (There is, I must say, an unusual divergence from the cinematic norm at this point: Beethoven’s sublime Seventh Symphony, second movement is used as a metronomic counterbalance to the tension and slowly released drama and joy of the finale; usually such a sweeping score is used as a replacement for dramatic tension (see: House, anything on BBC1-4, any movie with a vampire in it), not as a scaffolding.)

The point is that often, theory attempts to replace experience in the practise of education, and this often results in a kind of Frankenstein lesson plan, where the modern practitioner is so busy trying to shoehorn SEAL, PLTS, differentiation, AFL, evidence of progress, positive rewards and group work into a fifty minute slot, that there appears to be very little time left for actual teaching amongst all the flim-flam. Like a bowl of vitamins for dinner, the science looks good, but it fails to satisfy.

So to Hell with the latest research that indicates that children learn better hanging upside down, or facing east, or rubbing their brain buttons or something; science, as I frequently rant, is the best guess we’ve got, and I salute its effectiveness against the crystal balls of superstition and cant. Social science doesn’t share the same space on the podium; it must always be one step down in our estimation, because even by its own standards it doesn’t delivery the certainty of the empirical method, such as it is. But then it doesn’t claim to be, at least not in the hands of repsectable practitioners. But in the hands of social science acolytes, the practise becomes a racket, and everyone suffers by its claims to orthodoxy.

‘Curse you Logue, and your phonics!’

The King’s Speech is an excellent film (Christopher Hitchens provides a commentary on its relative worth as a piece of history here). Lionel Logue knew that what worked was what was important in his notional classroom, and damn anyone with their voodoo statistics that, twisted beyond recognition, claimed that smoking cured cancer and aided the recovery of good diction. We, as teachers, should go forth and do likewise, and learn to trust our instincts as we gain them.

We aren’t the slaves of theoretical dogma; we are the builders of the new pyramid. Until that changes, nobody tells us how to hold a chisel the right way.

Lionel Logue- Heroes of Education #4

Review in The Cambridge University Journal of Trainee Teacher Educational Research

All good reviews are, of course, wise and fair, and this review of my book The Behaviour Guru, is very wise and fair indeed. Jenny Turner the reviewer is, in my opinion, possessed of discernment and poise, and probably extremely good company to boot. May fragrance follow her, and rose petals anticipate her every tread.

It’s an emergency! For God’s sake, get me a social scientist! Why misunderstanding the aims of research is crippling education.

I’m elbow deep in gizzards this week with the number of geese I’ve slaughtered in the name of prognostication. I haven’t developed an emergent tendency towards serial killing; I’ve just been trying to answer an age-old educational conundrum: do schools need more money? And answering that seemingly simple question led me to question the whole educational research racket, or at least its misappropriation by the people we trust to run the show.

My unconventional approach to divination and revelation was prompted  when the government published school-by-school spending figures along with last weeks’ league tables. Although the DfE is being coy, claiming that this publication is purely linked to the aim of greater transparency, we all know that nosey Noras will be asking if schools give value for money. Very sneaky. So how do we know if more money actually leads to better results in education anyway?  A BBC report from the 14th of January looked at the evidence:

‘A recent Pisa study from the OECD, compared academic performance across a wide range of countries and offered some support for the government’s view that money is not a key factor. Another study, by Francois Leclerque for UNESCO in 2005, surveyed a wide range of other economists’ attempts to find a correlation between resources and results. Some found a positive correlation. Others found the opposite. Leclerque concluded that, whichever view you took, it was as much a matter of one’s previous belief and opinion as it was of scientific knowledge. (1)

One major study (by Hanushek and Kimko, 2000) looked at pupils’ international maths scores and compared them to several different measures of school spending.It is not clear whether spending more on schools leads to better results. Their conclusion was: “The overall story is that variations in school resources do not have strong effects on test performance.” (1)

So that’s all perfectly clear then. At least we have all the data we need to make a decision. Not.

Think about what’s happening here: tens of millions of pounds spent, an equivalent proportion of academic labour, the finest minds in education, all focused on one point, one question, like shining a million light bulbs onto a spot and turning it into a laser. Only to find that all you have is a very bright room, and an army of moths dive bombing the window.

If you turned that focus, funding and fervour on to a physical task, you can imagine the mountains that could be built, or abysses excavated. If it was directed to an object of material interest such as ‘how high can a house of cards be built?’ then we’d have the answer by tea time and all be driving home in our 1976 Gran Torinos with the overspend. So why the problem uncovering truths in educational research?

The answer lies in the methodology and expectations of social science itself, and their differences with the Natural Sciences: chemistry, physics, biology, astronomy, oceanography, etc- anything that is amenable to the scientific method of study. The social sciences- and I’ll be coming back to that term later- is the attempt to replicate  that method in the field of human behaviour. As the latest marketing meme-worm would say, simples.

What is the scientific method? In essence it is based on the following process:

1. Data regarding physical phenomena are collected by observation that is measurable and comparable.
2. This information is collated and a hypothesis is constructed which offers some kind of explanatory description of the events described by the data; to look at it another way, we discern a pattern in the data that offers the potential to predict or define, usually on the assumption of causality, but often with a purely descriptive intent.
3. This hypothesis is tested by experimentation. The hypothesis is then either immediately discarded with the introduction of this new data, or tested again. The more profound and extensive the testing, the less uncertain the hypothesis is claimed to be.

I’ve simplified the process on a similar scale to describing Moby Dick as ‘a big fish’ so forgive my brevity. There are long established difficulties with this method that offer challenges to both the philosopher and the scientist: have I tested enough? Is my interpretation of the data biased? Have I collected the data in an ethical manner? Have I performed relevant tests? Are there alternative explanations? Have I mistaken correlation for causality? And so on.

But scientists have one fairly large trump card to play when contesting with chippy Humanities graduates about all this: science seems to work. Your car works; your phone reliably transmits emails of funny dog pictures around the world; planes have a habit of not falling from the skies. If the scientific method isn’t perfect, it’s the closest thing we’ve got.

And of course there is a much more profound question: is anything certain? Rationalists like Descartes would say that there are things that can be ascertained by the pure light of reason itself, such as his own existence (in the much misquoted Cogito, Sum). But what about the world? Descartes’ argument for the proof of an external world is as convincing as the plot line to My Family, and most people (certainly anyone other than lonely, friendless hermits) turn to our observation of the world as the best basis for understanding how things work: broadly speaking, the empirical approach.

But Hume (certainly one of the most readable of the British Empiricists) famously drove a bus through the empirical claims to certainty, by describing all predictive statements about the world (The Sun will rise tomorrow; water boils at 100 degrees Celsius at sea level, etc.) as inductive inferences. In other words, they rely on our assumption that the future will be like the past, which of course is something we can never test. To understand the importance of this, we can look to the example of Popper’s Black Swan Problem; until the discovery of said sooty avian, any European would have said that all swans were white, and they would have had millions of observations over centuries by millions of people to back this hypothesis up. Of course, no hypotheses can ever be established beyond doubt, and any decent scientist is aware of this.

But this isn’t a problem of science; it’s only a problem of people who misunderstand the scientific method: it never sets out to establish foundational, necessarily true propositions; it only seeks to establish more or less probable hypotheses, nothing more but certainly nothing less. It’s enormous success has led many people to become acolytes of this New God, ascribing to it the infallibility normally reserved for the theistic God or his chosen representatives. But science doesn’t make these claims. It simply observes, records, considers, and reflects. And when something seems to work, it runs with it. No other method comes close to its predictive and descriptive powers, so until something better comes along, we work with it, and ignore the spoon benders and the homoeopaths who chant and caper, and believe that because empirical scientific claims lack certainty that they can be contested, dismissed and replaced with their own particular and peculiar branches of witch craft and ju-ju.

Which brings me to social science finally, and its germane offspring, educational social science. The desire to apply the methods of the natural sciences to the social sphere is entirely understandable; after all, the benefits that have been obtained from the laboratories and notebooks of the men in white coats have given long life, comfort, leisure time and most importantly, Television and Mad Men. Imagine the benefits we could glean if we turned our microscopes and astrolabes away from covalent bonds and meteorological taxonomy and towards the thing we love and value most: ourselves. Cue: psychology, anthropology, history, politics, educational theory, etc. Now all we have to do is send out the scientists, and sit back and wait for all that  lovely data to be turned into the cure for sadness, the end to war, the answer to life’s meaning and while you’re at it, how best to teach children.

And yet, here we are, still waiting. The example I gave at the start of this article serves as just one illustration. For every study you produce that demonstrates red ink lowers pupil motivation, or brings them out in hives or something, I can show you a study that says, no, it’s green ink that does the trick. For any survey that shows the benefits of group work, there are equivalent surveys that say the same about project work, or individual work, or the Montessori method, or learning in zero gravity or whatever. It is, to be frank, maddening, especially if you’re a teacher and on the receiving end of every new initiative and research-inspired gamble that comes along. The effect is not dissimilar to being at the foot of an enormous well and wondering not if, but how many buckets of dog turds will rain on you that day, and how many soufflés you’ll be expected to make out of it. To quote Manzi:

‘Unlike physics or biology, the social sciences have not demonstrated the capacity to produce a substantial body of useful, nonobvious, and reliable predictive rules about what they study—that is, human social behavior, including the impact of proposed government programs. The missing ingredient is controlled experimentation, which is what allows science positively to settle certain kinds of debates.'(2)

And that, I think, summarises the problems teaching has with the terrifying deluge of educational research that has emerged in the twentieth century and beyond, and the apparently awful advice that has drenched the education sector for decades with its well-intentioned by essentially childish misunderstandings. When I entered the profession I met many old hands who would greet each new initiative with a pained, ‘Not that again,’ expression in the style of Jack Lemmon chewing tinfoil. At first I thought they were merely stubborn old misanthropes, but now I see that they were at least partially motivated by desensitisation; that they had sucked up scores of magic bullets and educational philosopher’s stones catapulted at them over the decades, and had learned to wear tin helmets to deflect as many of them as possible. None of this justifies ignoring new ideas, but it’s easy to understand why teachers become immune to the annual initiative.

And yet, even this is to be unfair about the nature of social scientific research and its alleged conclusions. In the field of Religious Studies, for example, I find an enormous deficit of research that claims to point to anything intrinsically predictive or definitive. Much of the research in this area is acutely aware of its limitations, possibly because of the explicit understanding that any discussion of faith matters automatically put one in the proximity of discussions about truth and validity, opinion and subject bias. Of course, there is a lot of bogus research that deserves to be laughed at too, but it’s interesting that in a field so contested one should find such care. Social science only gets itself into hot water when people take its findings as more than what social scientists would actually claim, namely that it possesses any kind of claim to finality and certainty.

Any good piece of social science I have read relating to education is always upfront about the limitations of its method of testing; is always tentative in its assertions, and always hesitates to assert anything substantially beyond the data obtained. But I have also read a great deal of bad research that appears to think itself a branch of physics: this method, it thunders, produces this result. A key problem here is what might be called high causal density: when we attempt to ascribe a social phenomena to a particular causal precedent, we immediately run into the problem that any one behaviour (such as improved grades or behaviour) is extremely hard to trace back to a given event; there are enormous numbers of factors that could correspond to the outcomes under examination. Thus, if I introduce a new literacy scheme in school based on memorising the Beano, and next year I see a 15% rise in pupils obtaining A*-C in English GCSE, any claim I made that the two were connected would have to wrestle with other possible claims, such as the group being observed were smarter than previous groups; or they had better teachers; or they were born under a wandering star, ad infinitum. This causal density is particularly noticeable in endeavour that studies human behaviour, with its multitude of perspectives, invisible intentions and motives. Put simply, people are infuriatingly difficult to second guess and predict.

The position is similar to the weather forecasting. We might be able, broadly speaking, to predict that Winter will be colder than Summer. But anything much more specific than that gets harder and harder; even the Met office doesn’t issue long term forecasts any more; there just isn’t any point. And their daily forecasts update every few hours or so; that’s because the factors involved, while potentially measurable in principle, are just too complex and numerous to be done in practise. The problem is multiplied when we consider that human behaviour may not, after all, be reducible to materialist explanations, and therefore escape causal circumscription entirely. The debate over freewill is far from over; indeed, it is as alive as ever.

This problem possibly wouldn’t upset too many people (namely that many people engaged in the field of social scientists have a shaky grasp as to the powers and frailties of the scientific method itself, and produce papers that are riddled with subject bias, observer bias, researcher bias, and the desire to produce something that justifies their tenure and funding), except that as a concomitant to its claims to provide meaningful guidance in social affairs, it also expects to be used- and sometimes succeeds- in driving the engine of policy making in front of it. And that, dear friends, is where people like me come into the equation.

Here are some of the things that are assumed to be axiomatic truths in the contemporary classroom:

1. Lessons should be in three parts
2. Children putting their hands up is bad
3. Red ink will somehow provoke them to become drug dealers and warlords
4. Every lesson must have a clear aim
5. Every lesson must conclude with a recap
6. Every lesson must show clear evidence of progression, in a way that can be observed by a blind man on the moon with a broken telescope.
7. Levelling children’s work is better than giving them grades. Grades are Satanic

I could go on, but their aren’t enough tears in the world. These are just some of the shackles that teachers are burdened with, dogma with which they must comply. Why? Because someone, somewhere produced a study that ‘proved’ this. And that proof was taken to be gospel, and then passed down by well-meaning ministers, the vast majority of whom have never stepped in a classroom in a pedagogic manner, unless accompanied by cameras.

So that’s where we stand right now; social science being produced by the careless, consumed by the gullible, and transmitted down to the practitioner, who waits at the foot of the well with an umbrella. In this arena, is it any wonder that the teacher has been devolved from respected professional, reliant on judgement, wisdom and experience, to a delivery mechanism, regurgitating the current regime’s latest, fashionable values? No wonder teaching is in a bit of a mess right now. We’re not expected to be teachers; they want us to be postmen.

In this vacuum of credible knowledge, is it any wonder that teachers feel uncertain, misguided, confused about their roles, about the best way to teach, and troubled by the nagging suspicion that the best ways to teach are staring right at them?

The most certain assertions are those that make the least specific claims, and fit the greatest number of observations and data. These are the principles that teachers should be guided by, and that’s why your own professional experience is at least as good a guide as the avalanche of ‘best practise’ and OfSTED criteria that resulted from the misappropriation of science; and in many cases, your own experience will be better. If you have  years of experience and genuinely reflect on your practice, if your classes are well behaved, the children express enjoyment and the grades are good, then some would say your experiences were merely anecdotal; but I would say they were a necessary part of professional wisdom and judgement.

In fact, I would say they were better.

A priori, the social scientific method is best used as a commentary on human beings and their behaviour, not as a predictive or reductive mechanism. So the next time you read another piece of educational research hitting Breakfast TV, feel free to say, ‘Oh really? That’s interesting.’ But make sure you hold your breath. And get your umbrella and saucepan out.

1. BBC News What Does Spending Show?
2: Jim Manzi, 

 See? I put references and everything this time. That was so people would take it more seriously. Homoeopaths are really good at this, especially when they’re referring to other homoeopaths, quack PhDs and dodgy journals run from the back of someone’s health food shop.

All your homework are belong to us: Policing Cyberspace, and the week’s news in education

As I write, the Catholic Church is setting an extra space at the table for married priests; Zsa Zsa Gabor has had her leg amputated; the Periodic Table is being rewritten to allow for average nuclear weights; MySpace is being dressed for a coffin; somewhere in an endless, vast blackness, Voyager 1 is close to entering interstellar space; and in Italy, the Prime Minister has demonstrated that he could toe punt a cardinal into the Tiber and still get elected. We live in interesting times.

Here are some other interesting things in education this week:

1. Spoke to a brilliant school police officer, PC Anonymous, who told me about the virtual problem taking up a real-time chunk of his life: Cyberbullying. I’ve written about this here. This is now a huge problem, as the anonymity of the internet, and the dislocation of intent and harm caused by typing away on your lonesome, contributes to an explosion of children saying very nasty things indeed about their peers in a very public way. The odd thing here is that many of the comments made would never have seen the light of day had they not been facilitated by the secret, undercover world of the internet. In essence, Facebook and other platforms have made it easier for people to be bullied, victimised, subject to harassment and intimidation. And let’s face it, at least it sometimes takes balls to say those things in public; in your bedroom, hiding behind someone else’s name, it becomes as easy as logging on.

So how does he tackle it? Scotland Yard now has a dedicated unit for dealing with this problem, and all that a police officer has to do is to contact this unit, who in turn contact Facebook- if they see any posts that break their terms and conditions, they can perform the ultimate digital disinfection: deleting the account. The reason that this is important is that many teachers and SLT think that this is a complicated, technical process; it’s not. It’s as simple as reporting anything else. And believe me, it’s worth not ignoring this kind of bullying- to the victims, it’s as real, and perhaps often more personal, more private, than traditional bullying over pocket money, because it invades their bedrooms. Worse, it involves their on-line personae. We have a generation of children who increasingly identify their self-image with their on-line presence; their avatars, their usernames, the groups they join, the content they generate. For someone to have that element of their identity attacked is to feel a very peculiar and omnipresent form of being haunted. The on-line world has no physical form; it surrounds us conceptually. How do you run from that?

And it’s not just teenagers: in 2009, research by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the Teacher Support Network suggested 15% of teachers had experienced cyberbullying, often from parents. 

Equally, the sensation of having one’s account removed is, for some teenagers, akin to having an elbow removed (or a leg?). In some ways, it’s the perfect sanction; for some, devastating, yet involving no actual physical punishment, merely the to-be-expected outcome of breaking a contract, buried deep within the bits of Facebook nobody ever reads (usually right next to the bit about them owning everything you upload to Facebook, and your rights to privacy, which can be summarised in a haiku). You can tell that it’s traumatic, because there are Facebook groups already called things like ‘They deleeted mi payge for no reeson Facebuk ar crimnals,’ and other unlovely contortions of grammar and syntax. (Oddly  enough, although finding some of the settings information on Facebook is so complex that it appears to be an attempt to introduce gamification into the experience, the terms and conditions could be discovered by a dog with no nose.)

Here are some of the transgressions for which Facebook can delete your profile. Section 3 of their terms of use say:

  1. You will not bully, intimidate, or harass any user.
  2. You will not post content that: is hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.

Section 4:

  1. You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook, or create an account for anyone other than yourself without permission.
  2. You will not create more than one personal profile.

So if you have to deal with anything along these lines, don’t shrug your shoulders and say, ‘Well it’s the Internet, innit?’ Give your friendly copper a call, and watch some instant justice being meted out, Tron-style. I guarantee satisfaction.

2. I adored this story about Leonora Rustamova, a teacher who was sacked in 2009 for posting fiction on-line that featured staff at her school, as well as students, and included scenes of a…sexual nature, including the sexual fantasies of named pupils about…er, her. Far from thinking that perhaps, maybe, just this once, she might have stepped over the line a bit, she defended her actions as innovative and was designed to engage the boy pupils. I. Bet. It. Did.

Insanely unguarded woman; it’s the lunacy of the ‘I was just trying to get them on side’, and her defiant refusal to see that this might be so far off the spectrum of acceptable practise for a children’s guardian, that makes her exactly the sort of person the CRB is designed to snag. The reason why I love this story, apart from its sheer mentalness- and after all, nobody really got hurt as a consequence- is that it acts a perfect baseline for any teacher wringing his or her hands and wondering if they should allow students to, for example, email homework to them or something. ‘Oh well,’ they can now say, ‘At least I’m not Leonora Rustamova.’

3. Also from the BBC, a report from a ‘leading digital education charity, the E-Learning Foundation’ suggests that deprivation in the UK now has a new face, and a brand new benchmark to which it can refer: a million children in the UK lack access to the internet at home. You heard me. A million. The report suggests, in the most serious tones, that many of these children risk being severely educationally disadvantaged by this lack of access. You can almost hear the knuckles being cracked as hands are wrung. Is that a Mission Bell I can hear?

I imagine that starving Kenyan children are extremely concerned about the rising levels of deprivation experienced by their British counter parts. Perhaps we should start a campaign in Haiti, asking them to contribute any Palm Pilots and iPads they may have spare. ‘Please. Just one Wii console is enough to keep a whole gang of teenagers in Bradford  above the digital poverty line for a month. You can make a difference.’

World poverty. Perhaps they’ve heard about it? There may be an Oxfam in your high street they can pop into and pick up some notes.

4. And, of course, a mention has to go to the English Baccalaureate, which is presently enjoying the attention of more suitors than a female toad trapped in a pond with a dozen Romeos. This is because the Humanities segment has been specified, by Gove personally it seems, to mean History and Geography. Cue: campaigns by RS teachers everywhere, paralysed with apoplexy at the thought that schools will sling all their Bibles and Prayer Mats in the room marked ‘Citizenship’, next to the desks with inkwells and the SLTs’ testicles. But of course, it’s always enjoyed a peculiar, special status on the curriculum- a compulsory, yet non-national curriculum subject with legally defined entitlements (although many schools ignore them, and OfSTED seem to have ADHD about it when they pop into schools). I suspect that RS will endure this regime, as it has for so long. Like the Vatican, it measures time, not in heart beats, but in centuries.

The Catholic Church has created a branch of itself to accommodate the Anglican converts who have flown from the Church of England into the Highest of the High denominations: it’s called the Ordinariate, in a thrilling choice of nomenclature that could have emerged from a Phillip Pullman novel, with its suggestions of hidden societies and secret orders. These new priests will operate, not in an diocese, but in a notional space, rather than a geographical one, and be headed by an Ordinary, which as a title, is not devoutly to be wished, perhaps. Or maybe it’s a bit like Surgeons being called Mister– they’re too cool to be called Doctor.So in an way, they’re a bit like the members of a Facebook group, linked by conceptual association and abstract affiliation. I wonder where their server is?

Probably not Myspace.

Life not imitating art # 332: You know The Shawshank Redemption, the film that’s on everyone’s top ten lists even though it’s good rather than great, and if I’m honest,  a bit hackneyed and predictable? There was a charming scene where hero con Andy Dufresne locks himself in the Warden’s room and plays The Marriage of Figaro over the tannoy to a transfixed, transported prison population. Well the same thing happened in a school near me this week. Only the hero of this story thought that, with his thirty seconds of precious privacy, he would treat everyone to heavy breathing instead of opera. Get busy livin’, people.

TES Behaviour Training: the live show (and this time it’s real)

Warning: contents may vary.

I’ll be running some training seminars for teachers who want to learn the fundamentals of getting their classes to behave, and running a disciplined class. I nearly said basics, but fundamentals makes it sound much more like some kind of ancient, arcane wisdom, as opposed to something anyone can learn. Which they can, incidentally

It’s being run and hosted by the Times Educational Supplement, and I’m the lucky guy taking the classes. The thing I think is great about these is that it’s a half day seminar, so instead of losing a day out of your life in an agreeable mid-budget hotel writing on sugar paper and telling the person next to you something nobody else knows (and wondering if you can hold your breath until you pass out), I’ll just get straight to stuff I think people need to know to tame a class. And believe me, it isn’t nuclear physics.

Better still, because it’s hosted by the TES, the costs are kept as as low as possible so it’s within most budgets. Seriously; we’re giving it away.* If you’re struggling with whole classes, one mentalist in particular, or burdened with line managers more akin to concrete lifebelts, I promise to give practical advice, and strategies that teachers can actually use, as opposed to well-meant sentiments that reflect current fashionable theory or administrative expedience. Oh yes, and I’m still a teacher, incidentally.

I am so looking forward to it. Not sure about the biscuit situation; I’ll get back to you.

If you fancy it, or just want to give a present to a friend with particularly thick skin and an understanding nature towards unusual gifts, click here to book. 

Do you want to be this guy?

Date: Saturday the 29th January
Time: 10am-1pm OR 2pm-5pm
Cost: £55
Venue: Holborn, London (TES Offices)

I look forward to seeing you.

*Not strictly true

Game Over: the perils of Gamifying the classroom.

No you’re not. You’re called Dave.

An excellent article in this week’s New Scientist called Power Up, by MacGregor Campbell, about an increasingly ubiquitious phenomena in teaching and even the real world : Gamification, which is exactly what it sounds like, i.e. the process of introducing game play elements into real life interactions. Turning life into a game might sound implausible, but as a social phenomena it’s well documented, especially as wireless technology becomes so miniaturised and pervasive as to allow our real life functions to be tracked and evaluated in game-like ways

How is this achieved? By imagining that your life is an enormous arcade game; only, instead of achieving new levels by demolishing pixelated obstacles, eating power pills or shooting invader sprites, you do so by performing more mundane, every day actions like brushing your teeth, doing the ironing, or similar. A sensor such as your mobile phone, or even just your own input could collect the data you need, and provide the interface between the real and the virtual world. As Campbell points out, such activities aren’t restricted to the realm of the high-tech: ever since coupons were given out with purchases, encouraging consumers to redeem them for prizes. And these days it’s a common experience for people to collect vouchers, or passwords from the backs of soft drink cans, and use them on the internet as currency to download songs, etc. In other words, virtual commodities have started to achieve actual value.

The scope for technology to increase the pervasiveness of this act is staggering: location tracking software on your phone can be wirelessly linked to central databases that then allocate you points for, for example, visiting a pub so that you build up loyalty points redeemable against further purchases. Your jog to the park can be monitored by your pedometer and turned into a number, encouraging you to beat your high score. And Wii fitness games most obviously blur the boundaries between the game and the activity until, presumably, you’re power-golfing yourself into a size 8 dress, or something (I don’t know golf very well. Is it high impact?).

How does this relate to the classroom? Because it intersects neatly with another phenomena that is increasingly popular: virtual rewards. Perhaps you’ve used them yourself? Superficially they’re simply a more sophisticated way of recording a Gold Star, or a Tick: instead of giving the rewardee either, you instead give them a sticker with a code printed on it. The children then take these codes, log on to an appropriate website with a personal user name, enter the reward code, and then get the ability to, for example, customise an avatar or play on online game. Whatever floats your boat, I suppose. I mean, I was surprised to find that people can actually pay to buy power-ups on most online games, and even my beloved Angry Birds app for the iPhone has a cheeky ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ option for a bargain 59p. Er, which is cheating, isn’t it?

But I digress. The link between fiscal and virtual currency has been achivieved; which is cute, because at its heart, money, of course, doesn’t exist- or rather value is a concept rather than an object. So I suppose it’s appropriate that if we can trade speculatively in a futures market, we can buy and sell electronic assets. Don’t you pine for the days people took pigs to markets and swapped them for bales of hay? Now it’s all Magic Beans.

Do they work in the classroom? Speaking from experience they certainly can do: the younger children are big fans, and actively seek to be rewarded, often loudly indicating that they’re performing the desired behaviour in order to get their Mario Gold. The older ones mostly eschew it, realising with age that the opportunity to clad their tiny online avatar with a pirate’s scarf isn’t exactly the white-knuckle thrill ride it used to be, especially if it involves any actual effort. But that’s the same effect you find with actual gold stars and the like, so no great problem there.

Never do this.

No, the problem lies in something far more basic: namely the problem of motivating children using external rewards itself. When we are very young, and socially acceptable value systems are unknowns to us, just as most empirical knowledge is absent from the Blank Slates of our mind, we need to be taught right and wrong (or, if you’re a moral non-realist, accepted from non-accepted values). This process is considerably accelerated by the use of incentives: positive ones (like carrots, if you’re a donkey) or negative ones (the goad, the reprimand, the sanction). Children come to associate discouraged behaviour with punitive experiences, and more agreeable behaviour with comfort and acceptance. It’s not exactly nuclear physics; every animal with a decent cognitive ability can master it.

The problem lies in that we use these reward systems as a means to an end: that the child should become habituated into seeing certain courses of actions as desirable, and others undesirable. The purpose of the activity is not to emphasise the desirability of the reward, but the desirability of the behaviour associated with the reward. In other words, if I give a kid a Smartie for tidying his room, I’m hoping that he’ll eventually learn to do it because it’s the right thing to do, not because he’s a Smartie addict. In other words, the reward for the action itself, which initially is extrinsic to the action, becomes intrinsic. And this, according to the Categorical Imperative, is what we might call duty.

Teacher: ‘Is that my head?’

Duty is considered by deontologists to be the only perfectly moral motive. Why? Because it is the only motive that excludes self interest and consequential gain. If I teach a child that every time he hands in his homework he’ll get a lollipop, the question I must ask myself is, is he doing it because he’s conscientious and dedicated, or because lollipops float his boat? The only way to find out is to take the lollipops away and find out. You might not like the answer.

Self interest has always been one of the the world’s most ancient and powerful motivators: Adam Smith took it as one of his central assumptions in the Wealth of Nations: that competition was the engine of human psychology. Darwin too took it to be a foundational truth: when resources are scarce we compete. Shaw called it the Life Force, and Kant claimed that we all instinctively had the love of our own lives uppermost in our basic desires. What’s in it for me? is such a universally acknowledged motivator that it scarcely needs to be expressed in the creation of any contract, tacit or formal. But the answer we should be seeking, if we are to consider ourselves in any way enlightened beings, is sometimes ‘Nothing: there’s nothing in it for me.’

If you help an old lady across the road for a fiver, you might be doing a good thing for a bad reason: because it suggests you wouldn’t do it without the reward. If however you do it because you believe it’s the right thing to do, regardless of your benefit, then you’ll be reliably inspired to do so in the absence of reward. Altruism, while not the exclusive litmus of goodness, is probably more reliable an barometer than naked self interest. Egoism, even of the enlightened variety, will only support moral conduct as long as the participants visibly, perceptibly benefit. Which means the system collapses when our interests are perceived to be at risk. Even societies based entirely on this structure (the ‘social contact’ beloved of Hobbes, Locke,and other legislative forefathers) contain this weakness: that morality can never be based entirely on self-interest, no matter how cleverly constructed it is to be mutual. In other words, kindness can never be conceived as entirely a rational enterprise, because it’s a value, and not reducible to articles of fact or quantity. It can only be conveyed, by parenting and education.

‘I’m worried my life lacks meaning.’

And because moral action is a value rather than a fact, we have to be careful how we reward students. If we make the link between good conduct and palpable benefits too direct, we risk encouraging good conduct only when rewards are available. The reverse of this is a frightening acceptance of bad conduct in the absence of reward. So any system of treats, stars, codes or gamified assets has to be treated carefully, otherwise we might just find that we’re teaching our students laziness, selfishness and egocentricity.

If you’re a good teacher, you don’t bust your backside trying to help your students because there’s a bonus, or a power-up; you do it because it’s the right thing to do. Any benefit to you should be incidental- although recognition and a warm rosy glow are nice of course. Alasdair MacIntyre would draw a distinction between external and internal goods: in his book Beyond Virtue, he discussed how the value of an activity should reside in the activity itself; Aristotle thought that the Good Life was, amongst other things, people pursuing actions that were ends in themselves rather than means to an end.

I agree. Rewards, if overdone, lead to vice, not virtue; when they are achieved, they should be for actions that merit them, not actions that are merely expected, not at the post adolescent stage. To do otherwise is to devalue the currency of reward, and to imply that all normal conduct should be accompanied by reward. Well, life isn’t like that. I don’t want to teach children to be complacent; I want them to appreciate self-sacrifice and restraint as well as hedonism: the former are vital to understanding the latter, and no reward system should teach children that life is an enormous chocolate box of increasing levels of diversity and sensuality, without also informing them that somewhere inside every box, there, too, lurks the horrors of the ginger, or the macaroon.

Your new line manager.

Jesse Schell, a video game designer, uses the term ‘Gamespocalypse’ to describe the way the world might be if gamification is used to exploit and corrupt people, perhaps in an effort to make them more obedient consumers, or by attaching exploitative values coded into the reward algorithms of the gaming process. We can see this effect on a much more subtle level in the way we reward our pupils.

Less is more. There are no Level Bosses to bash in life. I suspect it’s a good deal more complex than that.

Continue? (Y/N)

We need you to be rubbish: when to ignore whole school policies

‘Restorative Justice my ass’.

I just answered a question on the TES behaviour forum; it made me hopping mad, so I thought I’d repost my answer to it here. Basically, a teacher wrote in with an interesting problem. They’ve got great relationships, behaviour management, etc…but because the SLT want to introduce some whole school standards of classroom conduct, they’re in a dilemma- change what works, or submit to the spur and the lash of the almighty teaching cookie-cutter. This is my response…..

‘Only in the Wacky-Races world of education would we even have to consider such a farcical situation; you have great relations with your students; you have great behaviour in a school where that isn’t the absolute norm (which means you’re beating the curve), you love your job, you’re delighted to help out and you’re keen to work with the team. And you’re being encouraged to upset this fantastic balance.

It reminds me of the Simon Pegg character (Nick Angel, I believe) in Hot Fuzz; he’s a pioneer, ace cop who gets sidelined to the sticks because his track record is too good; he makes everyone else look bad. It also reminds me of a time in a previous school where one of the best behaviour managers I ever knew (fierce, almost terrifying; but his kids loved him and they worked hard for five years straight to do well) was given a satisfactory for his behaviour during an observation. When he queried this inexplicable grade, he was told that he ‘wasn’t using the whole school system enough’. I facepalmed myself so hard I spent a weekend in Holby City when I heard that.

What you have to do now is a delicate balancing act: on one hand you need to change your actual teaching style as little as possible, because the primary recipients of education (I shudder at the term ‘consumer’)  are the students; they benefit from your expertise, your relationships, your ardour and your vigour. Your responsibility is to them; NOT the middle leaders; NOT the SLT; NOT the ‘team’; secondly, your responsibility is to your integrity, your dignity. Do you want to go home and sleep soundly, knowing that you’ve executed your duty to the best of your ability? Or do you want to try to please everyone? That’s a rhetorical question (I asked an English teacher).

Also, teachers have been increasingly neutered in the last three decades by a succession of well-meaning but essentially clerical administrations who confuse uniformity, regularity, and quantitative scrutiny with rigour and professionalism. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, if surgeons were subject to the same level of pedantry and direction as classroom teachers, they’d all be stitching people with their elbows. Using liquorice shoelaces. That’s why teachers are the best judges of teaching practise, and people in offices are better at counting paperclips, or whatever the Hell it is they do. Jenga, perhaps.

And yet, and yet…their arguments aren’t entirely made of water; there is something to be said for an element of whole-school predictability. If pupils expect to, eg line up outside every lesson, then they become habituated to it. If the school standard is to salute the Head as he passes, or whatever, then at least they learn to follow a standard until it becomes routine. In industry, I heard it called ‘Flagpoling’ (or some other piece of alien jibber-jabber). But you know what? I’m not getting the impression that you’re a crazy extremist who teaches while hanging from the lightbulb; I bet you already have loads of structures in place in your classroom that are perfectly in line with whole school policy. Perhaps if you took a step back and looked at the proposals then you might be able to adopt a few of them relatively painlessly, without disrupting your existing routine. That way you can’t be accused of trying to buck the school, and your conscience might be salved slightly.

But if there’s anything they’ve proposed that you feel will actively spoil the good relationships and good teaching that you enjoy, then I would simply say can them. Seriously. Who cares? If other teachers are having problems in their classrooms, then they need to be more like YOU, not the other way around. Or perhaps I can be more precise and say that they need to be more like themselves, or the best versions of themsleves they can be. The greatest mistake an educational administrator can make is to assume that there is one ideal way of teaching; there isn’t.  We all have our own styles, which we learn over time. While there are undoubtedly many things in common with most good teachers (like high expectations, tough, fair, etc) there isn’t a universal cookie-cutter for teachers yet. That’s because we’re professionals. And helping to create people, not bake scones. Everyone’s oven works differently.

If the SLT are approachable, you might want to take your concerns to them; they may after all be open to suggestions. If they are not, then keep your marvellous classes to yourself. And for God’s sake, when you get observed, make sure you’re doing everything they love. Then go back to being good again.
Good luck to you. You should be doing INSET for everyone else!

‘I didn’t know!’ ‘You know NOW….’

PS If anyone tries to flannel you with the ‘but if you don’t make them do it, they won’t do it in other classes’ flim-flam, then scoff at them. Pupils tend to behave for teachers they respect, who usually have rigour, clear boundaries, reliable sanctions and an adult demeanour. If the pupils don’t behave in other’s classes, it’s not because of anything YOU’RE doing, or not. It’s primarily because of their own indiscipline. My God, it’s bad enough to claim that kids misbehave because of the teacher; it’s worse to claim it’s because of a teacher in another room…’

I might add that this isn’t one of those teachers who lets them base jump from the chandelier, chew gum and plan anarchy- this is a teacher, who, by the sounds of it, has good behaviour and gets them to work hard. If a teacher wants to do his/ her own thing because they’re just lazy asses, or because it’s easier to get the kids to like you than to get them to learn well, then there’s an icy Hell waiting for them in the basement levels of Dante’s Inferno. There’s a reason why we have some structure and routine to our schools, of course, but most of the reasons are aimed at supporting weaker teachers. Until they work out and get a bit stronger, and know how to tame their charges. But routines shouldn’t be a collar that chafes; they should be a skeleton; a climbing frame. And when they can assist your ascent no longer, you need to take off.