“Any comfortable American who is cynical of progress – or the competent decency of modern civilisation – hasn’t pondered how life was for our ancestors. Any day that cossacks haven’t burned your home should start out a happy one, overflowing with optimism.”
– M. N. Plano
It’s a feature of any generation to believe that the present is never as good as the past. Indeed, the last few years have seen many rise to power on the back of this dangerous fallacy. Doom mongers and eschatologists would have us believe that we are hurtling towards a post-apocalyptic future fuelled by a more violent, divided and psychopathic society.
Now I’m not naturally given to optimism but after reading Johan Norberg’s book ‘Progress’ there are some inescapable truths that would suggest that far from living in end times, we’ve actually never had it so good.
For example, if you were a 10 year old living 150 years ago, you would probably have already experienced the death of more than one immediate family member already. You would have been sent to work in horrific conditions pretty soon after that and your average life expectancy would suggest you’d only have another 20 miserable years left on the planet.
In 1900, average world life expectancy was 31 years old, by 2016 it was 71. Remarkably, the increase in life expectancy has occurred in only the last four generations of roughly 8,000 generations of homo sapiens. In anthropological terms, if you’re reading this you’ve not just won the lottery, you’re winning it every day.
For the majority of human existence, people lived truly wretched lives as hunter gatherers but in the 19th Century the Industrial revolution gave rise not just to huge population growth but to a concomitant economic prosperity as Norberg points out: “Between 1820 and 1850, when the population grew by a third, workers’ real earnings rose by almost 100 per cent” and in the 20th Century, the advent of open markets and free trade did not just confine this wealth to the West: “Since 1950, India’s GDP per capita has grown five-fold, Japan’s eleven-fold and China’s almost twenty-fold.”
Indeed, as a recent article points out the amount of people living in extreme poverty is plummeting by an average of more than 100,000 people per day:
There were nearly 1.1 billion people on earth in 1820, with about 1 billion of those individuals living in what is considered extreme poverty, according to World Bank economists Francois Bourguignon and Christian Morrisson. By the 1990s, the world’s population exploded to over 7 billion, with 2 billion living in extreme poverty.
From 1990 to 2015, the number of people worldwide in dire poverty shrank to 750 million. Put differently, that figure has, on average, fallen by 137,000 people every day over the last 25 years.
In terms of violence, it is a commonly held belief that the 20th Century was the bloodiest on record but when taking into account huge population increases, this simply isn’t true. For example, the Mongol conqueror Timur Lenk killed proportionally almost as many as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao combined in central Asia in the 14th Century. The latest US figures, for 2013, show that murder rates are lower now than in the early 1960s. In the same year, homicides in Japan hit a post-war low. In England and Wales the level of violence has dropped by 66 per cent since the latest peak in 1995.
In fact, as Yuval Noah Harari points out, our mortality would seem to be very much in our own hands. In many tragic cases, quite literally:
“In 2012 about 56 million people died throughout the world; 620,000 of them died due to human violence (war killed 120,000 people, and crime killed another 500,000). In contrast, 800,000 committed suicide, and 1.5 million died of diabetes. Sugar is now more dangerous than gunpowder.”
In education, the increases in provision and access have facilitated a simply astonishing rate of improvement: from 1900 to 2015, rates of global literacy increased from 21 percent to 86 percent of the global population. This rise has mainly occurred in countries that have rejected authoritarian regimes and the superstitious dogma of religion for the liberal democratic values of equality, humanism and personal liberty. Further good news in terms of education is that current rates of growth could possibly see us turn our attention to solving seemingly intractable problems provided certain political movements are challenged sufficiently as Norberg illustrates:
If annual global economic growth remains around two percent per head, the average person in 100 years’ time will be around eight times richer than today’s average person. With those resources, the level of scientific knowledge, and the technological solutions that may then be at our disposal, many of the problems that intimidate us today will be much easier to handle—from adapting to warming to taking CO2 out of the atmosphere.
Perhaps our current apocalyptic malaise is a result of the fact that when extreme poverty is off the table, humans have more time to address social injustice and inequality and although there is still quite a way to go, the gains over the last 100 years have been nothing short of remarkable. The fact that a black man can now marry a white man in many Western societies is testament to how far we’ve come. The other major factor is the rise of social media and a 24 hour news culture that is predisposed to report what’s going wrong as opposed to what’s going right. What Norberg’s book shows is that progress is not dramatic and therefore often not news-worthy.
Although there are many challenges that we are right to be worried about, for example ongoing geopolitical tensions, a worrying trend in mental health and the disappearance of jobs due to automation, the recent past suggests that we always find solutions. We are less aware of progress than we are of disasters because progress is a glacial process that often happens under the radar and is so complex that it resists simplistic narratives. As Bill Hicks reminds us, modern media is often based on sensationalism and scare tactics but when you take a wider historical viewpoint, there’s never been a better time to be alive.
Writing in 1985, Neil Postman made the interesting observation that of the first fifteen U.S. presidents, many of them could walk down the street without being physically recognised yet they would be instantly identifiable by things they had written or speeches they had delivered. Today the opposite is true.
Postman saw 1980s America as a world that celebrated the transient and the superficial, where the power of the written word as a space to formulate and expand on complex arguments gave way to impressionistic understanding and surface engagement. He claims the 19th century was the apogee of human thought where the act of undistracted reading in particular represented “both their connection to and their model of the world.” He saw the advent of mass entertainment TV in the 1980s as a tipping point characterised by an over-saturation of information to the point of total distraction:
“Information is now a commodity that can be bought and sold, or used as a form of entertainment, or worn like a garment to enhance one’s status. It comes indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, disconnected from usefulness; we are glutted with information, drowning in information, have no control over it, don’t know what to do with it.”
What’s remarkable about Postman’s dystopian vision is that it was written before the advent of the Internet. The dizzying amount of information now produced daily would have been inconceivable to him yet many of its stupefying effects would have been instantly recognisable. If TV was having this effect on adults 30 years ago, what impact is the Internet having on young people today?
An important new study on student use of the technology has shown that students who have access to the Internet in the classroom are being distracted out of learning in any kind of meaningful way. Students who used laptops in lessons voluntarily logged into a proxy server which monitored their in-class behaviour and researchers found that “the average time spent browsing the web for non-class-related purposes was 37 minutes. Students spent the most time on social media, reading email, shopping for items such as clothes and watching videos.”
An essential point to make here is that an adult using the Internet is not the same as a 15 year old using it. Most adults have developed schemas of knowledge that allow them to navigate the great highways of the Internet, identify subtle exits, negotiate fruitful side-roads and avoid potential dead ends. Asking kids to ‘research a topic on the Internet’ is like dropping a five year old on a motorway and expecting them to find their way home on their tricycle.
An older friend of mine who is a history teacher remarked to me recently that it was about 15 years ago that students who were asked to write assignments on Martin Luther King started handing in essays on the American civil rights leader who nailed 95 theses on a church door in Wittenberg in the 16th century and subsequently led the Protestant Church movement until his tragic assassination in 1968. Simply unleashing kids on the Internet with the vague justification of ’21st century skills’ is not just largely ineffective but a dereliction of duty.
Many techno-evangelists cite the vague concept of ‘creativity’ as a justification for the Internet in our classrooms but as Andrew Keen presciently pointed out ten years ago, as ‘truth’ becomes a relative term, not only is real creativity threatened but the wider implications for society are perhaps far more concerning:
This undermining of truth is threatening the quality of civil public discourse, encouraging plagiarism and intellectual property theft, and stifling creativity. When advertising and public relations are disguised as news, the line between fact and fiction becomes blurred. Instead of more community, knowledge, or culture, all that Web 2.0 really delivers is more dubious content from anonymous sources, hijacking our time and playing to our gullibility.
In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Darren Rosenblum noted that when teaching a unit on what he thought would be the engaging topic of sexuality and the law, his attempts to provoke discussion with his students was met with a “slew of laptops staring back” at him. He subsequently appealed to students not to bring laptops and created what he felt was a more human connection which in turn led to a better environment for learning: “Energized by the connection, we moved faster, further and deeper into the material.”
Laptops at best reduce education to the clackety-clack of transcribing lectures on shiny screens and, at worst, provide students with a constant escape from whatever is hard, challenging or uncomfortable about learning.
And that’s the thing about learning, it should be hard. It should be initially challenging and uncomfortable in the short term in order to be effective in the long term, but the ubiquitous and pervasive nature of Web 2.0 Internet has produced some disturbing effects on young people. As Simon Sinek has recently pointed out, there are some worrying trends in the millennial generation who are often characterised by chronically low self esteem, (facilitated he claims, by failed parenting strategies among other things) who now look to Facebook and Instagram approval to fix their lack of self-worth rather than human interaction and who are exhibiting behaviours that are profoundly addictive in nature:
It’s a bleak view of the future, often described as dystopian but for Neil Postman, there is an interesting distinction between the dystopian visions of Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Huxley’s ‘Brave New World.’ The former portrayed a bleak vision of oppressive state control in the form of Big Brother which sought to actively ban expression and limit human agency, however in ‘Brave New World’ there is a far more horrifying phenomenon at work:
In Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.
Technology has afforded us some incredible opportunities for education, such as comparative judgement or the JSTOR Shakespeare digital library and there are some good examples of purposeful, well structured environments but increasingly, we are suffering from what Sartre called ‘the agony of choice’ as we become more and more connected the the Internet of Things. Allowing kids to browse the Internet in a lesson and then expecting they will work productively is like bringing them to McDonald’s and hoping they’ll order the salad.
Techno-evangelists have sold us the Internet as a form of emancipation, freeing us from the ‘factory model’ of education (despite the fact the evidence for this is thin) but often technology in education seems to represent a solution in search of a problem that actually gets in the way of learning. Perhaps the most liberating and empowering thing we can do for young people today is to create a space for them where they can read the great works of human thought undisturbed and without distraction, for at least a short while.
Being an air traffic controller is hard. Really hard. The job entails having to remember vast amounts of fluid information often within a context of enormous pressure. Essentially the job is about ‘situational awareness’ which involves “the continuous extraction of environmental information, the integration of this information with prior knowledge to form a coherent understanding of the present situation.” The job is sometimes done under extreme duress, where they have to make life or death decisions often with a lack of sleep leading in some cases to long-term fatigue and burnout. So stressful is the job that they are eligible for retirement at age 50 or after 25 years of service.
In the 1960s, a series of interesting experiments was done on air traffic controllers. Researchers wanted to explore if they had a general enhanced ability to “keep track of a number of things at once”  and whether that skill could be applied to other situations. After observing their sophisticated abilities in air traffic control, they then gave them a set of generic memory based tasks with shapes and colours. The extraordinary thing was that when tested on these skills outside their own area of expertise the air traffic controllers did no better than anyone else.
These findings challenged contemporary thinking on generic skills. Surely they had developed a set of general cognitive capacities that could be used in other areas or ‘domains’? The evidence suggested the opposite. In order to be good in a specific domain you need to know a lot about that specific domain and moreover, “the more complex the domain, the more important is domain-specific knowledge.” This phenomenon is now well established and has been replicated many times. Other research for example has shown that the ability to remember long strings of digits does not transfer to the ability to remember long strings of letters. Indeed, we all know very ‘clever’ people in their professional lives who seem to often make very stupid decisions in their personal lives:
“A person who is able to reason logically in science may show no such ability in his or her personal life or in any areas outside of his or her areas of science. Knowing that we should only test one variable at a time when conducting a scientific experiment is critical. Outside of hypothesis testing, it may be irrelevant, with other knowledge being pre-eminent.” 
Take another example, sport. Within a football team you have many different types of positions or ‘domains’ such as goalkeepers, defenders and attackers. Within those domains you have further categories such as centre backs, full backs, attacking midfielders, holding midfielders and attacking players. Now the ‘general skill’ that all these players have is the ability to play football, however if you put a left back in a striker’s position or put a central midfielder in goal they would be lost.
A footballer’s ability to be effective in a particular position or domain is based on years of experience where they have built up thousands of mental models from playing the game in that particular position so that when they have to perform at a high level they can do so with faster reaction times and their full concentration can go on anticipating the complexities of the game faster than their opponent. Of course there are elements that are consistent with each position such as touch and technical ability but they look very different in each position and are heavily context specific. For example, a central defender heading a ball away to safety is very different to a striker heading a goal and the types of positioning and runs an attacking player needs to make are radically different to those of a defender. In other words, elite footballers are not “good at football” as such, they’re good at being a left back, defensive midfielder or attacker.
Despite the growing body of evidence questioning the efficacy of teaching general skills in recent years, there is still a near constant refrain for them to be prioritised in schools. This usually takes the form of generic “critical thinking skills” often taught in some form for an hour or two a week and decontextualised from any specific subject. This is a problem as Dan Willingham reminds us
Critical thinking (as well as scientific thinking and other domain-based thinking) is not a skill. There is not a set of critical thinking skills that can be acquired and deployed regardless of context.”
Thus, if you remind a student to “look at an issue from multiple perspectives” often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives. 
Another problematic area is the diaphanous world of “21st century learning skills” which some schools have made a central part of their mission. It’s even been suggested that some of these nebulous skills are now as important as literacy and should be afforded the same status. An example of this is brain training games whose proponents claim can help kids become smarter, more alert, and able to learn faster. However recent research has shown that brain training games are really only good for one thing – getting good a brain training games. The claim that they offer students a general set of critical or problem solving skills was recently debunked by a new study reviewing over 130 papers :
We know of no evidence for broad-based improvement in cognition, academic achievement, professional performance, and/or social competencies that derives from decontextualized practice of cognitive skills devoid of domain-specific content.
Instead of teaching generic critical thinking skills, an alternative strategy would be to focus instead on subject specific critical thinking skills that seek to broaden student’s individual subject knowledge and unlock the unique, intricate mysteries of each subject. This goes for other dispositions and faculties taught generically such as Growth Mindset and Grit – students may well have a Growth Mindset in English but not in Maths, and yet the concept is often portrayed to students as a general capacity that can supposedly function in a transversal way across all subjects.(Despite the fact that the jury is still out on whether these can be taught at all.)
In the same way that teaching knowledge devoid of any platform for students to discuss, explore and develop that knowledge makes no sense, the teaching of standalone, decontextualised general skills is a questionable practice at best. It’s enduring appeal is probably in the fact that the concept seems so intuitively right yet when the evidence is appraised we find their justification weak. To those advocates of the ubiquitous critical thinking skills we might risk the question: “but what are they going to think with?” As Dan Willingham reminds us “thought processes are intertwined with what is being thought about.”
The Role of Memory in Air Traffic Control (Gronlund, Dougherty)
Domain-Specific Knowledge and Why Teaching Generic Skills Does not Work (Tricot, Sweller 2014)
Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach? (Willingham)
Do “Brain-Training” Programs Work? (Simons et al 2016)
1 (Dominquez, 1994)
2 (Yntema & Mueser, 1960)
3 (Ericsson & Charness, 1994)
4 (Tricot, Sweller 2014)
5 (Tricot, Sweller 2014)
6 (Willingham 2007)
In Philip Roth’s novel American Pastoral, there’s a phrase that has always stayed with me and one I’ve since associated with a particularly unpleasant character trait. Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov is the blonde haired, blue eyed protagonist of the novel, a star athlete in high school, who marries a beauty queen and expands his father’s business empire but can never escape his shadow. In many respects his father is the unknowing architect of his demise yet his central flaws are some of the most desirable qualities of the American dream:
a father for whom everything is an unshakable duty, for whom there is a right way and a wrong way and nothing in between, a father whose compound of ambitions, biases, and beliefs is so unruffled by careful thinking that he isn’t as easy to escape from as he seems. Limited men with limitless energy; men quick to be friendly and quick to be fed up; men for whom the most serious thing in life is to keep going despite everything.
Passion is seen as a universally positive trait and rightly used in any discussion of personal enfranchisement but this week the word has cropped up in two separate contexts that has given me pause to consider whether it is not being used in more nefarious ways, particularly in the context of leadership.
As we have seen over the last month, the last person standing in a leadership contest is often the least desirable candidate. The qualities which yield a ‘winner’ are often some of the most insidious traits observable in a human being, and yet are often the most celebrated. In Roth’s novel, the Swede’s father, a “limited man with limitless energy” is emblematic of a particularly pernicious kind of American rugged individualism that Donald Trump has harnessed so well this year; self-promoting, shallow, inflexible, ruthless, decisive, brash and of course, full of passion. We’ve also been treated to Andrea Leadsom’s “passion for strengthening families” which includes a rejection of same sex marriage and the claim that those with the ability to reproduce have more of a stake in the future than those unable to do so.
On occasion however, a candidate with a different set of qualities can make it to the Iron Throne. This week the Education Select Common’s committee rejected Nicky Morgan’s choice of Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman noting that they “were concerned by the lack of passion she demonstrated for the job and the important contribution it makes to the lives of children.” Of course, the committee’s job is not to choose the candidate but rather to hold to account the government’s decision to do so and in that sense that are somewhat of a paper tiger, but their decision was met with a volley of argument from almost all sections of education, most notably those who have worked with or have met Spielman, perhaps because many felt her predecessor’s notion of passion was so alienating. The whole episode does however invite us to consider what exactly we mean by the term ‘passion.’
If the Select Committee’s understanding of passion is so wildly at odds with so many of us in the field then we might venture the question; is the term even a viable one to use in judging such an important position? The term seems to be so wide ranging and all-encompassing as to render itself meaningless and would appear to chop off the branch on which it is standing.
We can perhaps think of two differing interpretations of passion on a broad spectrum; benign passion and malignant passion. The passion of an English teacher for Shakespeare is a very different proposition than the kind of jingoistic passion of the extremist. There is also the tendency to confuse passion with a sort of self-promoting extroversion. What of the passion of the introvert with its “quiet determination”? Might we realign the notion of passion with the qualities of measured reflection, patient facilitation, the rare ability to ask the right kind of questions and then listen attentively to the answers?
Of course used pejoratively as I have outlined here, passion can be viewed perhaps wrongly in a solely negative light. After all, having no conviction at all leads nowhere and being passionate about personal goals and pursuits extends many benefits to us all both personally and professionally. Good teachers are devotees of their subject and have an innate ability to communicate that in ways that make learning infectious.
However ‘passion’ can often mask a more set unhelpful of dispositions, from the harmless passion associated with the banality of self help culture to the more sinister passion of a certain leadership culture that uses the term to excuse prejudice and exercise power over others in negative ways. As we have seen this week, passion often confers certainty where it is not warranted, and at its worst can cover a multitude of sins as Yeats knew all too well.
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhereThe ceremony of innocence is drowned;The best lack all conviction, while the worstAre full of passionate intensity.
In the 1930s endocrinologist Hans Selye differentiated between two types of stress, distress and eustress. We are all familiar with the first term but perhaps less with the second term which refers to a positive response to external stressors leading to a state of optimism, confidence and agency, in other words ‘good stress.’ The origins of this model has its roots in 1908 when psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson posited that productivity is directly correlated with an optimal state of stress. Too little of it and you get nothing done, too much of it and you get nothing done either.
A key concern of anyone working in education is monitoring the stress levels of staff and students. Of course we don’t want anyone to be in a state of distress but we now live in an age that often views all stress as distress without acknowledging the benefits of eustress. Is it possible to imagine a more ‘stress-tolerant’ culture where students embrace a ‘sweet spot’ or optimal level of stress, one where we could engender a atmosphere of positive challenge and agency? As Ben Martynoga points out:
This is where good teachers and managers should push their charges: to the sweet spot that separates predictable tedium from chaotic overload. Where stress gets more persistent, unmanageable and damaging, Selye calls it “distress”. Eustress and distress have identical biological bases; they are simply found at different points on the same curve.
The key point here is that both of these states are responses to external stressors as opposed to being caused by events themselves, in other words, perception is everything. A key question here is in what way do educators shape the perception that all stress is distress?
Broadly there are two responses to stress, an initial avoidance and then subsequent coping strategies. For a group of Yale researchers, both of these approaches deny the benefits of eustress because they perpetuate the idea that all stress is bad:
These approaches advocate and perpetuate the mindset that stress-is-debilitating, a mindset that not only is partly inaccurate but may also be counter-effective. Even hardiness and resilience approaches to stress, while acknowledging the enhancing outcomes, still ultimately affirm the mindset that the debilitating effects of stress must be managed or avoided.
In contrast to the “stress-is-debilitating” mindset, these researchers discovered that students could be primed to adopt a “stress-is-enhancing” mindset in which they embraced a certain level of stress and which resulted in them being more open to seeking help, more open to feedback, which led to lower levels of distress overall and which had “positive consequences relating to improved health and work performance.” This “stress-is-enhancing” mindset has many resonances with Robert Bjork’s notion of desirable difficulties.
We are all familiar with the”stress-is-debilitating” mindset. When we have open ended large tasks, we are often are on the left of the Yerkes-Dodson curve, with little or no stress and thus no stimulation to act, but when the deadline is looming, we find ourselves often on the right of that curve, in a state of paralysis, unable to act and making poor decisions in an effort to alleviate the distress. Clearly then the ‘sweet spot’ is to be in a state of eustress, characterised by hope, excitement, active engagement, (O Sullivan, 2010) and that feeling that you are in control of the task you are faced with.
While there are some serious external stressors that are debilitating no matter what your response to them, two questions worth asking are:
- Are the kinds of tasks we are asking students to do genuinely placing them in a state of distress or could they be seen more positively as a potential state of eustress?
- Are we focusing on teaching methods that actually increase distress such as a focus on the storing of information as opposed to the retrieval of it?
In education research there is often very little consensus, but one area in which there is almost unanimous agreement is in the testing effect. We now know that the worst thing we can advise students to do in terms of revision is to re-read material and highlight key points, and that the most effective thing we can advise them to do is to practice retrieving information through testing, preferable through self testing, low stakes quizzing and flash cards. This distinction between storage and retrieval processes is well researched as Roediger and Butler explain:
“The testing effect is a robust phenomenon: The basic finding has been replicated over a hundred times and its generalizability is well established.”
So we know that testing is beneficial for learning but yet the general perception of testing seems to be altogether negative. Is the problem not just the high stakes nature of them but also how students are prepared for them? If students are using poor study techniques like re-reading and highlighting material for most of the school year within a curriculum that is not interleaved but focuses on mass practice, is it any wonder that they enter a state of distress when they enter exam season?
Stress experienced early in life can be debilitating and potentially devastating if compounded throughout life. Where children experience prolonged periods of distress they need the proper help and support to enable them to cope and we clearly have some way to go in this area. But are the kinds of tasks that we are asking them to do in schools genuinely creating a state of distress? If stress is a often a question of perception as Selye claimed then to what extent is it helpful to portray testing and exams for example as a key contributor to a “mental health crisis spiralling out of control?”
Stress is a very difficult area because it is highly subjective and often results in emotional and sometimes irrational reactions to it. We all want to create a healthy, productive atmosphere for staff and students in which they feel they have agency over their future and in which they don’t feel overwhelmed by external stressors but by viewing all stress as distress without harnessing the hidden benefits of eustress, we might just be missing a trick.
Diamond DM, et al. (2007). “The Temporal Dynamics Model of Emotional Memory Processing: A Synthesis on the Neurobiological Basis of Stress-Induced Amnesia, Flashbulb and Traumatic Memories, and the Yerkes-Dodson Law”. Neural Plasticity: 33. doi:10.1155/2007/60803. PMID 17641736.–
O’Sullivan, Geraldine (18 July 2010). “The Relationship Between Hope, Eustress, Self-Efficacy, and Life Satisfaction Among Undergraduates”. Social Indicators Research 101 (1): 155–172. doi:10.1007/s11205-010-9662-z.
Speaking on the art of direction, Terry Gilliam said that the difference between Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick is that while Spielberg gives you comforting answers, they’re not very clever answers, whereas Kubrick gives you something you have to really think about. For Gilliam, Kubrick’s work articulates a more recondite truth about humanity that doesn’t patronise its audience with platitudes and banalities but instead celebrates ambiguity, complexity and rejects the comforting, media friendly sound byte.
Spielberg’s work has its place of course and provides just as valid a form of entertainment as anything else. Sometimes “not very clever answers” are exactly what we need, but when those answers overreach their scope and are posited as a deep and inherent truth about life and offered as a maxim for how to live our lives, we risk conflating the truly profound for the pseudo profound. Inspirational culture is characterised by this conflation, telling us that the world is a lot simpler that is actually is.
This week there have been a series of ‘inspirational’ messages aimed at comforting students facing difficult exams. One of the central messages is that failing these exams doesn’t matter and that what really counts is “dreaming big” or “going on adventures.” Other messages advise students taking their SATS not to study over the weekend but instead “ride a scooter” or “eat Haribo and ice cream.”
While well intentioned, these statements conceal some concerning messages. They give students comforting, easy answers to difficult questions and implicitly tell them that instead of confronting difficulties, and being OK with confronting difficulties, they should instead be entertained all the time and be unconcerned with consequences. These messages fetishise failure as a means of growing, but failure doesn’t mean dismissing challenge and difficulty. Real failure means trying your very best at something and learning from the experience come what may, not “dreaming big” on a scooter all weekend.
Many inspirational messages not only patronise children with overly simple answers but also reveal a deep ignorance about the very real challenges many of them face. A lot of inspirational culture seems to come via highly successful individuals from wealthy backgrounds who fetishise their own failure with evangelical zeal, but failure is relative. What if you are from a second generation immigrant family with English as a second language? Is it in their best interest to eat Haribo and ice cream all weekend rather than giving themselves every opportunity of academic success? For many purveyors of failure, the consequences of flippantly failing the SAT exam as an adult and posting it on social media are on a different planet to the kind of consequences many kids from deprived backgrounds will face. Failure is relative and not all failure is good. I’m reminded of Donald Trump’s “inspirational” message earlier this year claiming that things had “not been easy for him” and that his father had given him a “small loan” of a million dollars to help him get started.
And while we’re on exams, a curious claim this week was that the SATs tests were were too “middle class” and “would have had no relevance to inner-city children or ones with no or little life skills.” Are we to take from this then that we should only teach kids that which they are interested in or already know about? Isn’t the point of education to broaden the minds of young people and introduce them to the vast expanse of human achievement and the natural world? Surely we want children to be intellectually curious, to have an ever expanding thirst for the best which has been thought and said, and to be exposed to a world beyond the limits of their time and space.
Failure has become the cri de cœur of the inspirational movement. A Princeton academic recently published a ‘Failure CV’ to wide acclaim which lists among them, a series of failed research funding proposals. However, rejections from doctorate programs at Harvard, Stanford and Cambridge are a world away from the prospect many children face if they fail key exams up to 16. All failure is not equal, and to propagate that is ill-judged, to celebrate it is irresponsible.
Inspirational culture implicitly tells the reader that they are too stupid to understand actual complexity and that they can do their thinking for them by summing up deep philosophical problems like failure in a pithy phrase or inspirational slogan on social media. We shouldn’t patronise children with the facile platitudes of inspirational messages (many of which are merely cynical opportunism,) we should be honest with them about the consequences of failure, both good and bad. We should equip them with the bravery to accept irresolution, challenge and difficulty and not provide them with the simple answers of inspirational culture. Failure may be an option for some of us, but not for all of us and for some kids, the consequences are far greater than others.
In his 1958 magnum opus “Personal Knowledge,’ Michael Polanyi defines ‘tacit knowledge’ as anything we know how to do but cannot explicitly explain how we do it, such as the complex set of skills needed to ride a bike or the instinctive ability to stay afloat in water. It is the ephemeral, elusive form of knowledge that resists classification or codification and that can only be gleaned through immersion in the experience itself. In most cases, it’s not even something that can be expressed through language. As he so beautifully puts it, “we can know more than we can tell.”
For Polanyi, explicit knowledge is hugely important in becoming proficient at anything but without the tacit dimension of knowing how to use and apply that knowledge, one can only arrive an an abstract and approximate appreciation of it:
“Textbooks of diagnostics teach the medical student the several symptoms of different diseases, but this knowledge is useless, unless the student has learnt to apply it at the bedside. The identification of the species to which an animal or plant belongs, resembles the task of diagnosing a disease; it too can be learnt only by practicing it under a teacher’s guidance.”
Teaching a group of children (as opposed to adults) over an extended period of time is one of those highly specialised domains where tacit knowledge is perhaps more of a prerequisite than others. It involves a million subtle nuances that are often invisible to the untrained eye, and as Polanyi reminds us, are often invisible to the teacher themselves. Knowing what will work last period on a Friday, knowing how one particular student will respond to a particular kind of feedback, knowing how to phrase that question just right to a particular kind of class who are struggling, knowing when students need to read in silence or have an animated discussion, knowing how to pitch a tricky concept at just the right point in the term or knowing how to deal with a 12 year old who has recently been bereaved and still get them through the year are all forms of tacit knowledge that are difficult to truly understand unless experienced firsthand.
On top of that, knowing how to assimilate all those elements and navigate the demands of an ever changing curriculum, parental engagement, marking and assessment and the undulating rhythms of the school year are all forms of tacit knowledge that are difficult to even define by its very best practitioners, never mind codify and teach to someone else.
And yet it’s difficult to think of another profession that is so dictated to by people without any of this knowledge. Surprisingly, some academics in education departments who train teachers are without any experience of teaching children themselves. Of course research and the kind of rarefied knowledge it creates is very useful to inform the teaching profession, indeed many of the developments in cognitive psychology for example are yielding many highly applicable findings in terms of the science of learning, but to directly train teachers about the day to day complexities of children in a classroom without any experience of those complexities is another story. It’s like someone doing just a driving theory test but then never actually learning to drive themselves yet becoming an instructor and telling people how to drive based on a theory of driving.
Beyond teacher training, there are now an increasing number of voices advising teachers how to teach who have little or no experience of teaching children. Some education consultants are paid significantly more than the teachers they are training and yet do so without any tacit knowledge of the classroom other than their own as a pupil decades ago. Encircling education is a humming industry of corporate enterprise insisting for example, that there is a mental health crisis in our schools that urgently needs costly intervention, that kids need to be taught only that which they are interested in or that business leaders should determine what’s on the curriculum as opposed to schools.
Indeed one of the main growth areas of education consultancy is the nebulous techno-world of 21st century entrepreneurialism. Now there are very good reasons why technology can and should be adopted into classroom practice but we need actual teachers with tacit knowledge of the classroom to explore this, not someone who simply brands themselves an ‘edupreneur,’ ‘disruptor,’ ‘thought leader’ or whose only qualification for standing in front of teachers seems to be merely having done a TEDx talk. (It would seem trite surely, for someone with no experience whatsoever in the operating theatre to come into hospitals and lecture qualified surgeons on how to perform “21st century surgery” for example.)
There are of course many instances in which schools can benefit from wider perspectives and experiences that are just as valid forms of tacit knowledge in themselves. In terms of school governance and policy for example, there is a lot to be learned from wider experience. After all, teachers do not have the kinds of tacit knowledge needed to run large scale operations or nationwide initiatives, but in terms of what happens in the classroom, approaching it purely from a speculative, theoretical perspective can be dangerously misleading. As Daisy Christodolou has pointed out, a lack of tacit knowledge can represent real problems in the area of assessment.
There is a lot of talk of teachers “claiming their profession,” but if teachers are to become truly empowered and take control of their own practice then they need to form more robust networks to share their tacit knowledge in meaningful ways that directly improve student outcomes and their own professional development, and that have the collective authority to contest bogus assertions and to evaluate and assimilate other useful forms of knowledge, both explicit and tacit.
There is of course also a wider debate about what constitutes a “teacher” but directly experiencing the many failures and hard-won successes of teaching children (as opposed to adults) in the classroom and being a stable part of their lives and a wider school community over many years is a rare form of knowledge that’s too often undervalued. In the end, this hard earned tacit knowledge becomes very much a lived experience for teachers, and one that is in some ways, “based on a knowledge which we cannot tell.”
I shall suggest, on the contrary, that all communication relies, to a noticeable extent on evoking knowledge that we cannot tell, and that all our knowledge of mental processes, like feelings or conscious intellectual activities, is based on a knowledge which we cannot tell.
- Polanyi, M, (1958) Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. University of Chicago Press.
- Polanyi, Michael. “The Tacit Dimension”. Doubleday & Co, 1966. Reprinted Peter Smith, Gloucester, Mass, 1983. Chapter 1: “Tacit Knowing”.
On the 3rd May 2015, Chelsea won the Premier League title with three games to spare. For manager Jose Mourinho, it was his 21st trophy, marking him out as the most decorated manager in recent club football history. In August he was rewarded with a multi-million pound contract that would see him at the club until 2019. By December he was sacked.
The club had inexplicably nosedived in the new season with reports of “palpable discord” in the dressing room exacerbated by his public admonishment and subsequent ostracism of team doctor and well respected member of the group, Eva Carnerio. One of the major questions that emerged from Mourinho’s “annus horribilis” is how did a group of players who won the league at a canter a matter of months ago, capitulate in such a dramatic fashion?
In direct contrast to this we are witnessing possibly the greatest sporting phenomenon in English football history with Leicester City poised to win the Premier League, a feat made all the more remarkable by the fact that this time last year they were bottom of the league and fighting for their lives to even stay in it. The difference appears to be their new manager, the genial Claudio Ranieri who has elevated a disparate band of largely unknown players to the pinnacle of football history within less than a year by fostering an indomitable team spirit that has seen each and every player performing well beyond their limits.
Great teachers have much in common with great coaches. They have a vertiginous knowledge of their field with an infectious passion for it, and they can communicate that passion clearly and in ways that inspire. They have an unquestionable authority, the total respect of the players in their charge and crucially, they can engender trust and belief in their team to the extent that they will walk through walls for them. Conversely, if that relationship breaks down, players can be shadows of their former selves; aimless, lacking in confidence and self-belief and playing ‘within themselves.’
Anyone working in education has experienced this same dynamic, either themselves as students through a teacher who ignited a passion for the subject they went on to study, or through witnessing that colleague who unfailingly seems to get the best out of even the most resistant of students. I’m not talking about teachers who are well liked and who allow students to “define their own learning” (often described as a “legend”) but teachers who set high expectations, command genuine respect and trust, who model the kind of behaviour they expect, who have the authority to create a scholarly space that allows kids to really achieve, who have the ability to make students believe they are better than they ever thought they could be, and who can transmit their own obsession for their subject into a lifelong appreciation of it from their students.
Yet this element is rarely mentioned in education research. Possibly because there is no effective way of measuring such a thing and possibly because it is the elephant in the room that many simply don’t want to face. The uncomfortable truth is that without the respect and trust of their students, a teacher will often be ineffective no matter how many interventions they try or how many leadership training courses they are sent on.
One of the many blind spots in education research is that it often doesn’t take into account the context in which an particular approach occurs, which makes comparing ‘like for like’ extremely problematic and which has resulted in widely differing interpretations of what works.
However, despite the fact there is often very little consensus in education research, one area in which there is almost unanimous agreement is in feedback as the most effective agent of learning. For Dylan Wiliam, in order for this approach to function properly, context is all important and a healthy relationship between teacher and pupil is paramount:
“In the end, it all comes down to the relationship between the teacher and the student. To give effective feedback, the teacher needs to know the student—to understand what feedback the student needs right now. And to receive feedback in a meaningful way, the student needs to trust the teacher—to believe that the teacher knows what he or she is talking about and has the student’s best interests at heart. Without this trust, the student is unlikely to invest the time and effort needed to absorb and use the feedback.”
There isn’t a lot of research in this area but one interesting (yet somewhat disturbing) study conducted by Hunter Gehlbach from Harvard in which researchers tried to improve teacher/student relationships by showing areas where they had something in common, has yielded some intriguing results:
“For the experiment he had in mind, Hunter and his team created a survey for students and teachers of a ninth-grade class. The researchers then selectively shared examples from the survey results with teachers and students to show them that they had things in common. When Hunter examined the test scores of students who had been induced to see that they had things in common with their teachers, he found something astonishing: students — especially minorities — suddenly started to perform better in class.”
This study is yet to be replicated and there are many problematic aspects of it, but it does perhaps signal a new avenue of enquiry that moves away from focussing on disembodied education interventions and instead focuses on the context in which those interventions take place. If a teacher doesn’t have authority and the respect of his students, does it matter what approach they take?
It’s not a teacher’s job to be liked or popular, but it is their job to ensure students can achieve their potential and ideally, open their minds up to wonders of Shakespeare, Newtonian Physics or Minoan civilisation. If the strength of the relationship between teacher and pupil is the determining factor in how well students engage with their subject then maybe we need to talk about this rather than focussing on a set of ‘what works’ interventions that no matter how well evidenced, won’t work if the teacher has ‘lost the dressing room.’
One of the dominant narratives in contemporary education is the ubiquitous assertion that everyone is now a leader. Not only are all teachers now leaders, but even the kids are leaders whether they like it or not. Within such a climate we might want to ask; if everyone is now a leader, then what distinguishes the role of leader from any other, and who now leads the leaders? The other serious question is what does this say about teachers who just want to remain in the classroom?
Of course, on an abstract theoretical level all classroom teachers are leaders in the sense that they ‘lead’ a class of young people, but in reality they are not ‘leaders’ in the same way that effective senior leaders or heads of departments are. They aren’t making difficult decisions on a need-to-know basis about confidential pupil welfare issues, they are not organising whole school timetables and assemblies, they are not dealing with delicate staff disputes and they are not considering these issues from the same vantage point of actual leadership. If the entire crew on a ship were suddenly told they were now captains or chief officers and all stood at the bridge then how would the ship function?
Calling yourself a ‘thought leader’ because you put whacky ideas down on post-it notes and get a room full of people to jump up and down in order to “energise their creativity” doesn’t make you a leader. More often than not, you’re just wasting people’s time and time is something that teachers have precious little of. They certainly don’t have time to indulge some facile notion of motivational leadership dreamt up by a someone who has just watched a TED talk or read a bestselling book on leadership by yet another ‘leader’ who has never even been in a classroom.
So let’s be clear, beyond the motivational jargon, teachers are not leaders and leaders are not teachers and to conflate both the roles does each a disservice. What we need is both a divergence and an elevation of both of these respective roles in order to maximise their individual potential, and in doing so we should privilege the role of classroom teacher above all others. The overwhelming purpose of a school is to have an impact on the young people who attend it and the place where that happens for the most part is in the classroom not the assembly hall.
But this cult of leadership has its roots in a more ominous development in education. What seems to have crept into our profession is a sinister corporatism that views career progress in terms of leadership promotion and insists that everyone is now obliged to lead as a matter of course. What could be more suspicions that the teacher who just wants to be a teacher? This new cult of leadership is imperious and its followers are legion, indeed its various plenipotentiaries have been a veritable cash cow for the the encircling forces surrounding education. From the bloated list of academic qualifications in education leadership offered by universities to the often farcical leadership training days for teachers who are sent away from their classes on leadership courses, leadership is the assumed obligation of all teachers, without which any teacher is merely just that, a teacher.
So the role of teacher should be privileged over any leadership role. I labour this point not to denigrate leadership but rather to pay tribute to it. Great leadership is a rare ability role that requires a very particular set of skills, many of which are innate. Whilst they can be impersonated, they cannot be learned on a course or through an inspirational seminar.
In my career working in both the state and independent sectors I have been fortunate to work with many truly great leaders and the one consistent element in those people is that they had a set of skills that were sui generis – they were one of a kind individuals who were marked out by their difference, and that is what great leaders are – different. What made them true leaders wasn’t learned on a course or a book, it was a set of innate qualities such as drive, humility, patience, ambition and a certain kind of vision that others didn’t have. Their single biggest quality as a true leader however, was their willingness to selflessly take on a huge amount of unpleasantness that allowed those around them to flourish.
Great school leaders know that the purpose of schools is to endow students with a vital sense of themselves greater than they can yet imagine through the wonder of knowledge, and it is the direct impact of the classroom teacher that is ‘transformational’ here not the senior leader, or the school inspector or the education consultant. Truly great leadership does just that, it leads, intervening when it needs to, but for the most part it gets out of the way and allows others to flourish in a well structured environment. By telling everyone that they are leaders, we risk diminishing the unique role of leadership and we simultaneously perpetuate the idea that simply being a classroom teacher is somehow not enough. Let leaders lead, but more importantly, let teachers teach.
Robert McNamara was by any standards, a wildly successful man. Harvard graduate, president of Ford motors then rising to the heights of U.S. Secretary of Defense in the 1960s, McNamara epitomised American élan and brio. But he had one major flaw – he saw the world in numbers.
During the Vietnam War, McNamara employed a strategic method he had successfully used during his days at Ford where he created data points for every element of production and quantified everything in a ruthless fashion to improve efficiency and production. One of the main metrics he used to evaluate progress and inform strategy was body counts. “Things you can count, you ought to count,” claimed McNamara, “loss of life is one.”
The problem with this method was that the Vietnam war was characterised by the unmeasurable chaos of human conflict not the definable production of parts on a factory assembly line. Things spun out of control as McNamara’s statistical method failed to take into account numerous unseen variables and the public turned against US involvement in the war through a cultural outcry that would change the country. Although on paper America was ‘winning’ the war, ultimately they lost it.
As the war became more and more untenable, McNamara had to increasingly justify his methods. Far from providing an objective clarity, his algorithmic approach gave a misleading picture of what was becoming an unfathomably complex situation. In a 1967 speech he said that:
“It is true enough that not every conceivable complex human situation can be fully reduced to the lines on a graph, or to percentage points on a chart, or to figures on a balance sheet, but all reality can be reasoned about. And not to quantify what can be quantified is only to be content with something less than the full range of reason.”
While there is some merit to this approach in certain situations, there is a deeply hubristic arrogance in the reduction of complex human processes to statistics, an aberration which led the sociologist Daniel Yankelovitch coining the term the “McNamara fallacy”:
1. Measure whatever can be easily measured.
2. Disregard that which cannot be measured easily.
3. Presume that which cannot be measured easily is not important.
4. Presume that which cannot be measured easily does not exist.
Sadly, some of these tenets will be recognisable to many of us in education – certainly the first two are consistent with many aspects of standardised testing, inspections and graded lesson observations. This fiscal approach been allowed to embed itself in education with the justification given often to ‘use data to drive up standards.’ What we should be doing is using “standards to drive up data” as Keven Bartle reminds us.
The fallacy is based on the misguided notion that you can improve something by consistently measuring it. In the classroom, this is best illustrated by the conflation between learning and performance, which For Robert Bjork, are two very different things – the former is almost impossible to measure, the latter much simpler. It is very easy to transpose observable performance onto a spreadsheet and so that has become the metric used to measure pupil achievement and concomitantly, teacher performance. In tandem with that you’ve had the hugely problematic grading of lesson observations on a linear scale against often erroneous criteria as Greg Ashman has written about here.
Two years after the Vietnam war ended, Douglas Kinnard, published a significant study called The War Managers in which almost every US general interviewed said that the metric of body counts were a totally misguided way of measuring progress. One noted that they were “grossly exaggerated by many units primarily because of the incredible interest shown by people like McNamara.”
In education, the ‘incredible interest’ of the few over the many is having a disastrous impact in many areas. One inevitable endpoint of a system that audits itself in terms of numbers and then makes high-stakes decisions based on that narrow measurement is the wilful manipulation of those numbers. A culture that sees pupils as numbers and reduces the complex relational process of teaching to data points on a spreadsheet will ultimately become untethered from the moral and ethical principles that are at the heart of the profession, as the recent Atlanta cheating scandal suggests.
Even in the field of education research, there is a dangerous view in some quarters that the only game in town is a randomised controlled trial (its inherent problems have been flagged up by people like Dylan Wiliam.) If the only ‘evidence’ in evidence based practice is that which can be measured through this dollars and cents approach then we are again risking the kind of blind spots associated with the McNamara fallacy.
Teaching is often an unfathomable enterprise that is relational in essence, and resists the crude measures often imposed upon it. There should be more emphasis on phronesis or discretionary practitioner judgement that is informed by a deep subject knowledge, a set of ethical and philosophical principles and quality research/sustained inquiry into complex problems.
In my experience, the most important factors in great teaching are almost unmeasurable in numbers. The best teachers I know have a set of common characteristics:
1. They are not only very knowledgable about their subject but they are almost unreasonably passionate about it – something which is infectious for kids.
2. They create healthy relationships with those students in a million subtle ways, which are not only unmeasurable but often invisible to those involved.
3. They view teaching as an emancipatory enterprise which informs/guides everything they do. They see it as the most important job in the world and feel it’s a privilege to stand in a room with kids talking about their passion.
Are these things measurable in numbers and is it even appropriate to do so? Are these things helped or hindered by the current league table culture?
Robert McNamara died an old man and had opportunity to reflect on his long life, most notably in the Academy award winning documentary The Fog of War. His obituary in the Economist records that:
“He was haunted by the thought that amid all the objective-setting and evaluating, the careful counting and the cost-benefit analysis, stood ordinary human beings. They behaved unpredictably.”
Measuring progress is important. We need to know what we are doing is having impact against another approach that might yield better outcomes, but the current fetish of crude numerical quantification in education is misleading and fundamentally inappropriate for the unpredictable nature of the classroom. We need better ways of recording the phenomenon of the classroom that captures more than simply test scores and arbitrary judgements on teachers, and seeks to impose an order where often there is none.