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”.
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.
An incredibly useful and informative talk on the research around how students learn best from one of the Deans for Impact who are “a group of deans from schools of education around the country, that have united to make sure future teachers are armed with information about what works in the classroom as they begin their careers.”
Podcast from the Harvard Graduate School of Education asking “How do you effectively measure teacher effectiveness?” Interesting conversation on triangulating data to create a broader, more in-depth picture of the impact a teacher is having beyond test scores.
One of the best podcasts around. This episode features stories of adults taking very different approaches to communicating with children with some very funny kids saying what particularly annoys them about how they are spoken to, specifically age appropriate talk. (TAL spawned the outstanding Serial podcast.)
If you work in education and you haven’t read Dan Willingham’s work then you’re doing it wrong. In this podcast, he elegantly dispatches the fallacious notion of learning styles and also looks at multiple intelligences.
Why can’t we replicate so much of the research on psychological studies? An interesting listen for anyone interested in education research and the problems of social science in general.
Intelligent podcast that asks some very controversial, almost taboo questions such as “is the issue with America’s failing education system simply that teachers just aren’t very bright?”
Laurie Taylor talks to Will Davies, Senior Lecturer in Politics at Goldsmiths, University of London, who asks why policy makers have become increasingly focused on measuring happiness. Interesting contribution to the conversation around the emergence of positive psychology in education.
Engaging podcast which essentially explores self delusion. This episode asks what keeps people in bad jobs, poor health, terrible relationships, and awful circumstances despite how easy it might be to escape any one of those scenarios with just one more effort. Useful discussion for anyone dealing with young people and reluctant learners.
Radiolab make unique audio documentaries in the style of This American Life. This episode features Oliver Sacks telling the story of an amnesiac whose love for his wife and music transcend his 7-second memory.
“Historically the philosophy of education has been at the core of the subject. Today there are relatively few philosophers working in this area. Meira Levinson, a philosopher with experience of teaching in US public schools, is one of them. Here she discusses fundamental questions about what we are trying to do when we educate our children.”
The ‘In Our Time’ podcasts are an indispensable resource for navigating an incredibly diverse range of areas of knowledge featuring experts in the field. Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the history and purpose of education.
NPR podcast on schools in the U.S. using traditional approaches to behaviour management that are challenging for many but yielding impressive results. Contributions from teachers in the frontline applying these methods and education academics who are less than convinced.
Name: Carl Hendrick
Twitter name: @C_Hendrick
Subject taught (if applicable): English
Position: Head of Research/Head of English
What is your advice about? Teaching Secondary English
1: If you’re spending more time cutting up things and putting them in envelopes than knowing your subject inside out, then you’re doing it wrong.
2: Kids will not die if they don’t talk in class for half an hour, in fact they might even enjoy the silence.
3: If you don’t give kids an awareness of the rich tradition of literature then their understanding of the present will be impoverished.
4: Literature is an exploration of what it means to live, to die, to love, to lose everything. Always remember that when dealing with kids who struggle with these things.
5: People who read a lot sound like they read a lot.
People who don’t read a lot sound like they don’t…
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“All our science is just a cookery book, with an orthodox theory of cooking that nobody’s allowed to question, and a list of recipes that mustn’t be added to except by special permission from the head cook.”
– World Controller Mustapha Mond from ‘Brave New World’
In the Times today, Dame Sally Coates claimed that all schools should teach identical lessons in order to address social inequality. She claims that “all children aged four to 14 should learn precisely the same things from a uniform curriculum in the same order throughout their schooling.”
This is an impoverished and dystopian view of the profession that should be resisted. It is a misguided attempt to impose an order where it’s almost impossible to do so, that views teachers as disposable dispensers of a hotly contested set of ‘standards’ and will ultimately cause more problems than solutions.
I can certainly see the appeal however. Current curriculum and assessment models vary so much from school to school that the landscape sometimes looks like the original thirteen colonies with differing constitutional systems of self government and legislation around a loose federacy. The idea of uniformity would certainly allow greater co-operation between school systems who would speak a more common language instead of the loose lingua franca there currently is.
But what this view fails to appreciate is that we are strengthened by our differences not limited by them. Creativity doesn’t come from uniformity, it comes from debate and dialogue with different voices and perspectives not some imposed singularity from outside. And the idea that uniformity can solve social inequality and ‘unleash creativity’ is part of a movement that takes its cues more from the assembly line than the classroom and for me, has uncomfortable resonances with Huxley’s ‘Brave New World.’
The central claim of a standardised curriculum is that through standardised testing of that curriculum you will be able to fairly evaluate progress against a common standard. The main problem here is that by piling so much emphasis on empirical notions of progress, you are unleashing a culture of high stakes accountability that views success in terms of exam results and worth in terms of league tables and too often sees teachers as disposable elements in that enterprise.
What makes this claim all the more baffling is that we have a pretty good example of what happens with mass standardisation (albeit an ‘opt-in’ model as Coates as advocated) in the form of the U.S. common core where the notion of a uniform ‘raising of standards’ as a driver of improvement is being robustly challenged.
At least three reports from the Education Department, including a 2008 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, have found no relationship between the difficulty of a state’s test and the level or change in student achievement.
The other question is who decides what to standardise and what goes on the curriculum? Schools should have standards but they should not be imposed from outside, and certainly not by people who have never been in the classroom. Of course schools should not be able to’do what they want’ but they should have the autonomy to choose what is right for their pupils in their own context.
A further problem is that beyond the curriculum things get even more difficult to standardise. Despite all the research on the classroom there is still very little consensus on what truly works so what exactly is it are we proposing to standardise? And who precisely is deciding what those pedagogical standards are in the first place?
And what if standardisation doesn’t stop at the curriculum? Imagine a world where it was suddenly decided that you not only had to teach character as a new ‘standard,’ but to evidence that against a set of pre-defined set of ‘character metric’, and then this was measured and compared against some sort of ‘national index of character’. We’re back to the sort of big-data-double-speak of Blair and his “rural community vibrancy index”.
I can’t think of a more depressing landscape where all schools are teaching exactly the same thing, at exactly the same time, where every lesson is ‘off the shelf’ and where teachers are essentially painting by numbers. In teaching, like in poetry, form and content are inextricably linked, they inform one another and create an overall effect that is impossible to control never mind ‘standardise.’ The best teachers teach a curriculum that comes from within not without, it is content that they are enlivened by and are desperate to communicate to kids.
Teaching is a far more mysterious enterprise than advocates of standardisation appear to realise. It has many disparate parts that are prone to flux and change and often resist order and blunt categorisation. Attempts to quantify the mystery of the classroom have largely failed, so perhaps we should be brave enough to allow at least some of it to remain a mystery, to not reduce everything to numbers and seek to ‘tag and bag’ every single thing and instead celebrate our differences as opposed to eliminating them.
“Till at last the child’s mind is these suggestions, and the sum of the suggestions is the child’s mind. And not the child’s mind only. The adult’s mind too-all his life long. The mind that judges and desire and decides-made up of these suggestions. But all these suggestions are our suggestions… Suggestions from the State.”
‘Brave New World’
In William Faulkner’s short story The Tall Men, a local marshall and a young litigious county official visit a rural family to arrest two brothers for failing to register for the draft. They find that the brothers’ father has had a life-threatening accident. When the older marshall explains to the father that the most sensible thing would be for his sons to join the army in Memphis, the younger official indignantly insists that the warrant be served, and the boys be prosecuted for not completing the requisite paperwork on time. The older marshall intercedes on behalf of the family:
’You mean all right. You just went and got yourself all fogged up with rules and regulations. That’s our trouble. We done invented ourselves so many alphabets and rules and recipes that we can’t see anything else; if what we see can’t be fitted to an alphabet or a rule, we are lost. We have come to be like critters doctor folks might have created in laboratories, that have learned how to slip off their bones and guts and still live, still be kept alive indefinite and forever maybe even without even knowing the bones and the guts are gone.’
Last year there was a raft of apocryphal headlines about teacher workload and burnout. A survey by the Educational Institute for Scotland (EIS) concluded that wellbeing and satisfaction within teaching were at an all-time low and stress levels were alarmingly high due to a proliferation of ‘pointless paperwork’. Teaching appears to be at the point of collapse, but ask any teacher what wears them down and you’ll rarely hear that it’s due to the cut and thrust of the classroom. No, it’s the near-endless stream of data entry, form-filling, standardisation and ever-shifting curriculum and assessment criteria that is grinding teachers down.
A central problem is the conflation of bureaucracy with professionalism. This was illustrated some years ago when I visited an ‘outstanding’ academy. It had implemented a standardised four-part lesson format. All teachers were expected to deliver the same format every lesson and provide weekly lesson plans to leadership, who then went on ‘learning walks’ to ensure teachers were moving from part A to part B of the lesson at the right time. When I suggested that this approach might be creating a culture of monotony and covert intimidation, I was told, ‘well you can’t argue with the results, can you?’.
The implicit message in the endless monitoring and micromanagement of teachers is that they are not to be trusted. At its worst, bureaucracy valorises methodology over autonomy and gives the false impression of impartiality where instead there is systemic prejudice. The bureaucrat’s axioms of ‘process’ and ‘procedure’ create an ultramontane system unable to appropriate the concerns of the individual teachers into its orthodoxy. This dysfunction affects students, too. Those achieving lower grades, for example, are not viewed as individuals with complex sets of problems, but rather as aberrations within a system that demands ‘intervention’ to re-establish uniformity and straight edges.
One of the more surprising aspects of increased bureaucracy in education is that it arises at a time when education is shifting from centralisation and state control towards free-market solutions. For David Graeber, this has led to a paradox he calls the ‘iron law of liberalism’, which states that
‘any market reform, any government initiative intended to reduce red tape and promote market forces, will have the ultimate effect of increasing the total number of regulations, the total amount of paperwork, and the total number of bureaucrats the government employs’.
(Ironically, one of UK education secretary Nicky Morgan’s solutions to excessive workload in the form of needless paperwork and form-filling is yet more needless paperwork and form-filling – through the promise of a series of ‘large scale, robust’ surveys in 2016.)
With the emergence of Big Data, bureaucracy has entered hyperdrive. The weight of key data points such as GCSE English and Maths scores at Key Stage 4 are out of all proportion with their integrity as valid measures of progress. They are used as a stick to beat headteachers and staff in the name of ‘improving standards’.
Another unintended consequence of bureaucracy is that it allows poor teachers to fly under the radar. Instead of acting as a bulwark against incompetence, bureaucracy often serves to protect and even perpetuate it. A teacher who has poor relationships with his or her pupils, and doesn’t have sufficient subject knowledge, for example, can be less likely to be held to account than a teacher who is unable to ‘evidence’ progress through a portfolio of lesson plans, objectives and whatever marking policy is in vogue at the time.
Something has gone terribly wrong when teachers are spending more time on facile data entry and documenting nebulous ‘evidence of progress’ than on deepening their subject knowledge and building strong relationships with their pupils. By foisting the impersonal machinery of bureaucratic infallibility on to the uncertain, relational domain of the classroom, we have created a heightened sense of anxiety and unease in the classroom.
But this anxious culture in schools is unnecessary. It comes largely from the fact that teachers today are over-monitored and under-mentored. They are swimming against a constant tide of meaningless administrative toil and are too often held accountable for the unaccountable, with all the paperwork that entails. To counter a schools culture in which we have lost sight of the value of knowledge, and that audits itself in terms of league tables and specious data, we need a serious re-evaluation of what education is for, and what it is we want our teachers to spend their time doing.
I’ve long thought that if the guiding principle for any initiative is the fact that it’s alliterative or that it’s a ‘handy acronym’, then there’s probably good reason to be suspicious of it. One of the most pervasive of these is the three Cs – collaboration, creativity and communication or a variant thereof, with the emphasis firmly on collaboration.
Collaboration is now the sine qua non in any learning or professional development scenario. We live in an age where to work alone is somehow seen as a seditious act. There is now a near constant injunction to collaborate, to ‘connect’ socially and to be a “team player.” We now have open-plan offices, “break-out spaces” and increasingly classrooms that look more like Times Square than somewhere where you might be able to reflect and think hard about something.
I worry that for many of us, there is now no refuge from this kind of stuff:
The classic collaborative activity is of course ‘brainstorming’ devised by Alex Osborn in 1939. The commonly held wisdom here is that if you withhold criticism, reserve judgement and allow a critical mass of ideas to form then you will arrive at the most creative solution to any given problem. However this approach is not supported by evidence.
in 2003 Charlan Nemeth from the University of California divided 254 students into different groups with the same problem to solve ‘How can we limit the impact of the traffic problem in the San Francisco Bay area?’
The first group were instructed to solve the problem in the classic collaborative, brainstorming method where they did not criticise ideas but simply collated as many ideas as possible. The second group were instructed to work differently and to debate and criticise ideas and preconceptions and the third group could do as they pleased.
The results were overwhelmingly definitive – the debate team were by far the most creative. Not only that, but when the teams were broken up and individuals were asked to think about the problem further on their own, the brainstorm team came up with an average of three extra ideas but the debate team came up with an average of seven ideas.
What I think is so interesting about this study is firstly the clear evidence that critical dissent is a powerful driver of not just creativity but also of the volume of ideas, but perhaps more interestingly, deliberate and solitary reflection (combined with debate and rational argument) would seem to be far more productive than traditional collaborative brainstorming or uni-directional ‘teamwork’ activities. (This chimes with Nick Rose’s clarion call for professional scepticism.)
This line of research maintains that the benefits of dissent stem from the cognitive conflict it generates; the dissent compels those in the majority to search for possible explanations as to why the dissenter is willing to openly disagree and suffer the rejection that often accompanies such disagreement. This search for explanations then fosters thinking on all sides of the issue (Nemeth, 2003).
As someone who valued the fact that I could sit, read and think for hours as a child undisturbed by the injunction to agree with everyone and then march around the room and stick post-it notes onto sugar paper posted on walls, I worry that we are not affording the same opportunities to kids today in an age where collaboration is not only valorised but mandated.
Add to this the constant distraction of technology and there is a reasonable argument to be made that the most progressive and indeed liberating thing you can do in education today is make kids read in silence for an hour.
There are lots of other reasons why we might want to work collaboratively such as social and relational benefits which are certainly important, but we should perhaps think twice in doing so in the name of being more creative or productive.
DW Taylor, PC Berry and CH Block, “Does Group Participation When Using Brainstorming Facilitate or Inhibit Creative Thinking?”Administrative Science Quarterly 3, no 1 (1958): 23-47
Matthew Feinberg, Charlan Nemeth (2008) “The ‘Rules’ of Brainstorming: An Impediment to Creativity?”, Institute for Research on Labor and Employment Working Paper Series (University of California, Berkeley) Paper iirwps-167-08; http://escholarship.org/uc/item/69j9g0cg