Wednesday, 23 March 2011

What makes a teacher great? Discuss:

I posted this on LinkedIn group for Free Schools, but I'd like some other respondents.

From a previous discussion the question was posed, Since everyone agrees that great teaching is the key element in improving educational outcomes for young people why aren't we discussing this?

I think getting the team right in the first place does a lot to ensure continued success even after the initial team has moved on. In this spirit, I'd like to ask you, what are the characteristics of great teachers and great educational leaders, and how do you establish an ethos that the whole learning community advocate and promote?
There has been much talk about the nuts and bolts of setting up Free Schools, but this question is so pivotal that it cannot be left until after the mechanics have been satisfied, IMO.

What are your thoughts? I'll post mine later.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Response to Free Schools Discussion Thread

As an international educator of some 20 years standing that returned to this country to teach, but who left secondary school teaching in order to do what I love, teaching, I have a perspective that perhaps others do not. That said, I am heartened that so many of you have the intelligence, experience and perspicacity to analyse our system without the benefit of perspectives from outside the paradigm.
Here are my thoughts on this thread.

Train teachers to be the very best they can be. Resource them to be great. Get parents and communities totally behind them. Appoint great headteachers.

In my experience, great teachers are born. They can be educated to bring out that greatness, but to assume that anyone can be trained to be a teacher is part of what is wrong with the system. Other cultures refer to the pedagogic arts, not a mechanistic operation. It is like substituting painting by numbers for art. Great teachers are also themselves demonstrably lifelong learners that have very good levels of knowledge of other disciplines that they use to illustrate concepts within their own. They also have thorough knowledge of their specialism and can approach concepts from many different perspectives at a moment's notice. They have a sense of fun: are real, believable characters: take the time to get to know their students, both within and without the classroom: they have unambiguous affection for all their students and exercise total consistency in upholding the highest ambitions set out in the school's philosophy and mission statement.
Great teachers operate much less effectively without a close relationship with the student's parents or carers, so from a Free School's perspective, this should be enshrined in the philosophy and mission statement, thereby formalising an obligation to a parent/school partnership.
Resources are important, but, to quote my daughter who spent a few days in a state school, “Papa, where has all the money gone?” I had told her that the British government were pouring loads of money into state education. When I told her these things, neither of us had any direct experience of the system as it became in the last fourteen years. Until our school really got going, I had to scrounge materiel from anywhere I could for free, cannibalising for bits and making Heath Robinson efforts for practical work and bought chemicals from industrial suppliers at a fraction of the cost of that from educational suppliers. My colleagues in other disciplines did the same. Resources are not as critical as the inspirational teaching afforded by great teachers.
The most important resource is leadership and in that they must exercise a light hand. Inspirational heads are the figurehead for the philosophy and mission and should involve themselves in keeping the path open for the brilliance of great, inspirational teacher.
Very often inspirational heads become so by contact with their inspirational teachers.
Great schools are where the whole learning community live and breath the philosophy and mission and support each other in doing so – no us-and-them.

The relationship between politics and education is in fact relatively new.

. . .[C]hoice drives excellence . . .

It depends on the nature and degree of choice. I once had to babysit an East German post-doc student at Cambridge. I took him into Sainsbury's and apart from the fact that there was something on the shelf, he was astounded by the range of choice. For some reason, we were in the dog food isle and I remarked that there was probably 30 varieties of dog food here, to which he replied that it was still dog food.

And I believe you need the radical experiments to test and prove new solutions

Where's the experimentation? We all know what good teaching and learning looks like, we just have to free ourselves from the bureaucratic dogma that hinders great teaching and learning.

. . .[G]iven the point made in other LinkedIn threads about the failures of the last decade or more in education terms, spelt out in national (ONS) and international (OECD) data and other information which is available right now, the previous situation can hardly be held to represent 'what is known to work'

Have you seen any of the test papers for the PISA study? You can download them from my website. You will see that they are not very challenging, which suggests that our system is rather worse than it seems from its position.

. . . [P]urchasers of the service - namely, parents and their children . . .

Unfortunately, that which is communally owned most often suffers from the Tragedy of the Commons and is therefore not valued. Greater parental involvement assuages this to a very great extent.

Is 50% 5 A*-C's good enough for you?

Referring to GCSE, no, it is not. GCSEs are trivial in comparison to other educational systems. This level of qualification is more appropriate to year 9 for the average student.

. . .[A]s a nation we cannot afford not to invest in education.

More and better teachers.

How to improve education outcomes. Some starters for 10:
1. Stop messing with structures and processes
2. Radically reform teacher recruitment, training, monitoring and remuneration
3. Minimum age for teachers to be 25
4. Impose statutory obligations on parents re engagement with their child's education e.g. attendance at parent's evening, monitoring of attendance, checking records of achievment etc. etc. etc. etc.
5. Progression by stage not age
6. No league tables

Agreed! League tables operate much like quotas in the former USSR. You can have tables, but not the simplistic, easily reinterpreted things we have now.

Since everyone agrees that great teaching is the key element in improving educational outcomes for young people why aren't we discussing this?

Yes let's discuss this. It is pivotal.

I taught for twelve years in an environment where parental turn out at parent's meeting was 100% and teaching performance monitored annually and pay increments based on this monitoring.

Me too. Teachers also had two year contracts. The performance monitoring was mostly informal. SMT felt free to drop in to classes and did so regularly and were welcomed. Small to medium  salary increments were given for r&d into ways to improve the product  and larger increments for the degree of extra-curricular input.

I have personally known several schools, that have suffered when a good Headteacher has moved on and the choice of replacements has been so bad.

On the other hand I have seen great leaders hobbled, stymied and forced out by an intransigent and belligerent staff.I refer to my comments on leadership above.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Free Schools and Me

I believe the Opportunity afforded by the Free Schools movement offers the best chance to improve Britains slide in international education standards. My interest is less of the practical mechanics of setting up and running a Free School, but to establish the philosophical background that is likely to ensure success and not just as lip-service.
Below is my take on the latest direction for Free Schools in terms of philosophy and mission, based on submission documents.

Section 3: Educational vision
  • A clearly focused vision that underpins the application
    I was instrumental in establishing the philosophy and mission statement of BBIS. Click here.     
  • Identify what will make the school distinctive in its vision and ethos.
    A large part of a successful school is the intimacy of the student/staff relationships and the collective responsibilities felt by all of the school community. Parents have a vital role to play in a school's success and should be closely involved not just with bodies like a PTA and fund raising, but also in their clear commitment to a true partnership with respective teachers for the benefit of the student. All too often there is an us-and-them mentality that stymies everyone's development.
  • Set out why you are establishing your Free School – curriculum offer/ pedagogy
    Since Free Schools do not have to address the National Curriculum, I would advocate abandoning it. The IB MYP allows, indeed demands that the schools determine their own curriculum within certain guidelines. This allows innovative approaches that builds a sound skills/content base for lifelong learning. The MYP specifies 8 subject areas, but I feel that the model falls down for Free Schools as far as commitment to the E-Bacc. (I use the original French diminutive) and its science stipulation.
    For years 7 through 9 an in-house innovative curriculum should be developed that is highly rational and contextualised with a framework (the big picture, as Brian Cox described it in a recent interview), e.g. In chemistry, an historical/heuristic approach, in physics, a curriculum based on energy as its central theme, in maths, an historical approach from Euclid onwards, modern languages, should reflect learning about the culture and learning the language is easily facilitated by focusing of words that are near homophones with their English equivalents. In this the principle of quot homines to sententiae can be applied since there are many novel ways to approach each subject that can allow the student to assimilate content while developing skills in a quick and efficient way. Students, like us all dislike mechanical memorising tasks, so curricula should be so design that content is assimilated while developing the skills.
    It is highly appropriate that the curriculum in this phase should also be driven by a true commitment to cross-curricularity, and here again, innovation is needed not just for the obvious, like between maths, science and technology, but also between the less obvious, like between maths/scinece and the arts The obvious is often missed in schools, e.g. I have very often had to teach remedial maths for my courses, because the maths courses seemed to have inculcated the idea that maths was restricted to the maths class and maths homework. Students very often improved in maths when its relevance outside the class/homework context was broadened. There are very many great opportunities for cross-curricular teaching and its benefits for the student in each individual subject cannot be stressed highly enough. It allows students to draw on different intellectual paradigms to analyse problems in novel ways.
    Students in this phase should be allowed and encouraged to take relevant GCSEs, since most students, properly taught can manage them long before the end of year 11
    In years 10 and 11, I would advocate a mix of GCSE, IGCSE, Higher E-Bacc, and early AS. There is a problem with how the QCA compare GCSE and IGCSE as equivalent for league tables, that is frankly risible, but early GCSEs can overcome this league table concern.
    With a bit of thought, these different qualifications can be addressed together in the same classes often, rather like HL and SL subjects in the IB Diploma.
    Pedagogy should be driven by personal warmth and mutual respect, teachers should know their students well and spend time with them individually and in small groups, both inside and outside the classroom. Students should be encouraged to ask questions whenever they have questions, since it helps teachers know their students better and how better to tailor their lessons for the individuals involved. In my experience, this simple strategy allows students to take ownership of their learning. For teachers, this is a gift, since it offers a learning opportunity based on the student's enthusiasms. In my experience, if a student asks a question, then about a third of the class has the same question, another third is not entirely sure, and those that know the answer either like the opportunity to answer the question or like to hear a different perspective. This requires the teacher to have a complete knowledge of their subject at this level, to be flexible and confident to approach a topic from a number of different perspectives. It requires the teacher to be a lifelong teacher themselves having intellectual enthusiasms beyond their specialisms from which to draw these different paradigms and analogies in addressing different perspectives and approaches. I have not encountered this approach from very many teachers, but those who do are very effective and popular teachers, and as such are assets to the school, for the academic and real bottom line, since their usefulness in PR is beyond measure.
    The curriculum should be planned according to principles of rational/causational flow as should each lesson, but, to incorporate the above, teachers should be flexible enough to accommodate students expressed needs.
Section 4: Educational plan

[What will be] [T]he experience that pupils will have whilst attending it. You should set out what pupils will achieve, how they will achieve it and how the school will evaluate performance, both of individual pupils and the school as a whole.

A school where they like to go every day; where they know they are valued and welcomed with warmth, affection and mutual respect ; where people believe in their ability to achieve and trust in the goodwill of those entrusted with their achievement; where they will achieve skills, social, life and intellectual: where they will achieve valued qualifications; where they will develop as lifelong learners and critical thinkers.

Physical evidence allows some evaluation. To evaluate the other aspects that relate directly to the ethos and philosophy, qualitative evidence from the school community and its neighbours.

Curriculum and organisation of learning

Set out expectations around the length of the school day, term and year.

My concerns here are for teachers. Great teachers work hard and want to do an exemplary job at all times. Unfortunately, there is too much bureaucracy, which great teachers will also want to do properly. Furthermore teaching is a tiring occupation, as the Chinese know and incorporate this notion into the Chinese teachers workloads. Therefore teachers should have more non-contact than is usually the case in British state schools and these should not be taken for cover.
Timetables that cover more than 5 days and classes that are taught by more than one teacher, result in diminished level of attainment in students, increased levels of stress for teachers and are difficult for teachers and HoDs to administer and coordinate. While these types of timetable allows SMT greater flexibility to reduce costs, they are a false economy, since teachers will have a very much larger number of students and they see them much less often and so cannot establish the worthwhile relationships that result in achievement, actual and holistic. It is also a false economy, since raised teacher stress levels will result in greater sick leave.

The school day should have time at the end of the day for homework, for extra- curricular activities and disciplinary sanctions.

Curriculum and organisation of learning

Describe the curriculum in detail, setting out how it will be broad and balanced and meet the different needs and interests of all pupils.

Since cross-curricularity is central to the development of critical thinking and approaching questions from a range of perspectives, the curriculum should include academic, including foreign languages, arts and sports.

Pupil development and achievement

Show how your school will define, measure and hold people accountable for the success of: i) the whole school; and ii) individual pupils.

The commitment to collective responsibility is central to accountability of all individuals in the community, where teachers and managers are mutually supportive.
For teachers, physical evidence, grades of students etc. Qualitative evidence, perceptions of parents and class visits & observations. SMT and other teachers should feel free to observe at any time, and feel welcomed to do so. This necessarily means that SMT and peers must have time in their day to do this.

Behaviour and Attendance

Show how the Free School will promote good behaviour, positive relationships and good attitudes to learning; and show how the Free School will maintain high levels of attendance.

Attacking the culture of us-and-them by promoting the ethos above.
Disciplinary sanctions should be timely (justice delayed is justice denied), proportional and carried out to preserve the dignity of the individuals involved and that of the school. Teachers should be allowed greater professional judgement in these matters.
Once a sanction has been carried out, teachers should treat the cause as past and the good relations are maintained. This should be made explicit by the teacher. Firm, but fair.
A small detail, I have found a system of merits and demerits has a salutary effect, especially if they have thresholds that automatically trigger further sanctions.

Community Engagement

Explain how when the Free School is established it will aim to foster good community relations and promote active contribution to modern British society, in line with the Equality Act 2010.

I have found that the school's neighbours are an unmatchable resource as guest speakers and sources of materiel and that the neighbours are only too pleased to get their message across. It is a win-win for both parties and only requires a telephone and a friendly manner.

Who can teach at a Free School?
Innovation, diversity and flexibility are at the heart of the Free Schools policy. In that spirit we will not be setting overly prescriptive requirements in relation to qualifications. Instead we will expect Free School proposers to demonstrate how they intend to guarantee the highest quality of teaching and leadership in their schools.
Selection of great teachers is at the heart of great schools. Candidates should be prepared to demonstrate not only knowledge in their own specialisms, but also have reasonable knowledge of other disciplines concomitant with lifelong learning. They should also be able to demonstrate that they can approach a topic from different perspectives and to think on their feet, effectively and with confidence. They should have unshakable commitment to the school ethos and the relentless, quotidian collective responsibility required to maintain it.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

The Need for Creativity in Education

The Great Debate initiated by James Callaghan in 1977 that had its first fruition in 1988 as the Baker Education Act is still going on. There has been a greatly heightened consciousness on the subject over recent years and especially since Michael Gove became Secretary of State and Katherine Birbalsingh dropped her whistle-blowing bombshell at the last Conservative Party Conference. Since then everyone it seems has something to say about our 'broken system' from Jamie Oliver to academic luminaries, not to mention the hundreds of hours of vox pop. I come to the question from an international educator's perspective and having specialised in epistemology, chemistry and physics, I feel I have something worthwhile to add to the debate.

The central tenet of this piece is that the pedagogical process is a creative one and that this is largely missing in the British state system. It will cite Radio 4's Saturday Live, Start the Week, the BBC News website, the New Scientist website and the TES website.

Sir Ken went on to ask the quasi-rhetorical question, “How do we get this creativity into our education service?” and cited Finland's individual approach and Scotland's Curriculum for Excellence. He expressed concern over current moves to make the service look more like the 19th C, whereas we should be applying ourselves to the 21st C so we need products of our system that are confident and adaptable. In making direct reference to the E Bacc (Bacc. is the usual diminutive, not Bac.), that it is a catastrophe that it should omit arts courses and that it is based on the old fallacy that the arts contribute very little to the economy and that it was the product of the troubled imaginations of politicians that getting the basics right (English, math and science) will get everything else right.
The noble baronets reservations of the E Bacc. Where echoed in another BBC piece on the ASCI conference where the attendees sported badges with 'I failed the English Bac.' This reminds me of the Bart Simpson badge, 'underachiever and proud.' I do not really understand what all the furore is about, except that propensity in some to love being outraged and incensed. What I do object to is the name. If it would be a true baccalaureate, it would have an arts subject and the standard would be a lot higher, since a C at GCSE is not a very high level.

Andy Burnham was at the conference and took a load of badges back for the Shadow Cabinet, which seems to set the tone for glorifying ignorance just as the set of reforms did in precious Labour administrations. He said that the E Bacc. Was a throwback to the 1950s and was very unfair. There's that word again, 'unfair'. It is the current paradigm to equate plumbing with brain surgery; that there must be a degree for everything and that all degrees are the same to give people the allusion of equality, while being sold a bill of goods. We need plumbers and plasterers and electricians and … as much as we need brain surgeons, lawyers (no, wait, let me think about this one), academics, artists, musicians, scientists, mathematicians et c. And we should give all the opportunity to achieve highly by overcoming obstacles from nature and nurture, but to say these academic achievements are of equal value is unfair and destines many for settling for less than they should. The idea that the E bacc is a throwback to the 1950s is unfounded and presumes that the teaching of these subjects would be less creative than they are now. I think that would be very hard, according to what Noble Bart went on to say.

Noble Bart also seemed to tacitly criticise the current system for its standardisation and conformity. Commenting on discussions with scientists, he claimed the curriculum was wringing the creative life out of their discipline, but went on to say that the same could be true of artists. He went on to assert the need for greater balance in education since we do not need a country full of statisticians and scientists, citing the the opportunities afforded by dance, theatre, music and design technology to inculcate creativity. It could be inferred from this that greater creativity in math and science would be effected by this.

There was a curious piece in the TES that seemed to bear out Sir Ken's point here. The piece was responding to Jamie Oliver's Dream School where the respondent seemed to bear out the modern teachers formulaic, standardised and conformist notion of education devoid of creativity reference was made to four part lessons and AFL strategies. So, a lesson has to have four parts and one can enumerate specific off-the-shelf strategies for formative assessment? Oh dear.

Reference was made in the piece to Michael Gove's determination to apply higher standards for teachers and Sir Ken's response to this is that we all remember our great teachers and that they were for us critically important and great teachers are critically important generally. He went on to say that teachers often feel that they don't have the opportunity to be creative in their classrooms and that the government holds all the cards. He suggested that since the Secretary of State is not at the back of the classroom, then teachers do have the scope for education. This seems to contradict an earlier statement in the piece about standardisation and conformity. Further, I was shocked to read a teacher's blog making the point about lazy, uninspired and uninspiring teachers. I was shocked, because, whatever the faults of our current system, one of the reasons for the reforms that have led to our current system was to eliminate these sorts of malpractices. In the state schools in which I have done supply, I have found that the regimes have been highly prescriptive and standardised to the point that it makes a mockery of the idea of individualised education, so actually the Secretary of State is in the classroom by proxy.

As I understand it, there are moves afoot to make the minimum qualification for a PGCE a II.II ( a Desmond, as we used to call it) and a III (the gentleman's degree) is below par. I think this is too persciptive. I have known teachers with masters, Ph.D.s all categories of degrees and little of their qualifications makes a difference to the quality of their teaching. I have known Ph.D.s that had no idea how to teach. One in particular, when asked by her students to explain a concept again, because they did not get it, just repeats herself and does not find what the problem is and address that by approaching the topic from a different angle. This is a creativity in action. On the other hand, I've known truly inspirational teachers with gentleman's degrees who are immensely knowledgeable and who bring that wealth to their teaching again creatively, by drawing parallels to other spheres of knowledge, conjoining two or more intellectual paradigms to produce novel thinking and thereby are effortlessly innovative.

This is not to say that teacher selection should be made more rigorous. If an applicant has a gentleman's degree, then investigate through an academic reference if there were mitigating reasons for this category other than lack of diligence or ability. I would also advocate that teachers work for a number of years in something other than education prior to applying for initial teacher training. The selection process should be a lot longer. In my case, I had to spend two weeks teaching lessons before starting my course and I was observed every time. This process would be very telling whatever the applicants' paper qualifications. It would also be cheap. Curiously enough these points were raised by Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the international achievement test known by its acronym Pisa in a NYT piece.

I also think that the assessment criteria should be sharpened up, part of which would include a creativity component, e.g. come up with different ways to approach given topics in the same way as ToK is partly assessed in the IBDP by the breadth and depth of approaches. There should also be exams for those to teach secondary school that they know that which they are supposed to teach. As a rule of thumb, I would consider a Higher Level paper fair if I could do it in a third of the time students had. Less than that then it was an easy paper, more than that, it was a tough paper. This idea could be used to test the knowledge base and analytical skills of prospective teachers. At the moment, there are only two criteria for this assessment for teachers.

On Monday's (14/03/11) Start the Week, Andrew Marr talked with Brian Greene, Brian Cox and Angela Saini on science, its importance, popularization and education. The scientists view was that today, one cannot be considered educated if you have no science and that science is the most important thing that we do, but that our current system does not inculcate understanding or respect for the process of evidential reason and peer review and that these are hard things for people to understand, since, in education the details are focused on too early, one has to remember a large body of 'facts' and that there is no focus on the big picture that popular science is so effective at doing.
Andrew Marr said that he had been bored rigid in science.

I can only agree, having studied and taught the curricula offered in the UK that it lacks vision, but it is possible to bring it alive for everyone and make it fun. The bigger picture is what I would refer to as the conceptual framework. 'Facts' happen along that are to reinforce the conceptual framework. For example, the curriculum for chemistry I wrote for IB MYP (subtitled, Why Stuff Is the Way It Is, How We Use It and How We Use the Knowledge of Stuff to Make New Stuff) that I wrote for 9th and 10th grade (years 10 & 11) starts with the formation of the elements in stars and novae; how do we know this? Well, from the light given off. Do some flame tests for characteristic colours of some elements to get the picture. Bring in a bit of history with Lavoisier and Proust with appropriate practical work and the student has their own data and forms the idea of relative mass. Move along to Boyle, Charles and Avogadro and you have relative atomic mass, the mole and the fundamentals of all chemistry. The course brings in history, literature, music and art, it is entirely heuristic and has a real rational flow. There is no rote learning of facts; the students work things out from experimental data, while having the freedom to ask questions at any time and have the right to have that question answered, if necessary by abandoning the planned lesson and doing an impromptu one. I have often felt that these impromptu lessons are the best. The course continues with compounds, formulae, bonding and The Periodic Table of the Elements, reactions and reactivity, organic chemistry, biochemistry and industrial chemistry. It is possible to get the hook in very early and establish the big picture into which the rest of a course fits, after all we are causality seeking machines and we have an emotional need to know.

The assembled scientists also claimed that the vast number of teachers had no real experience of science and that government has a key role in bringing professional scientists into the system. Here again, I have difficulty with this notion. Do they mean that secondary science teachers do not have science degrees? All of us do. Perhaps they might mean primary teachers. From what I have read in primary science books, what primary teachers say they do in science and from the absurd notions that many students bring from their primary science, they might have a point. As far as professional scientists that have come from research labs that have come into teaching, they are not any better as teachers because of their research experience. Many have come into teaching because of family reasons, e.g. wanting to have the same holidays as their children, or were made redundant et c., but not for reasons that they would be in their element, doing something they love, for its intrinsic value and therefore have no reason or impulse to be creative.
The same goes for ex-bankers and soldiers, although, a military school for expulsees (pardon the neologism) would be effect and cheap – a school with military discipline and military sanctions, but with psychologists and professional, dedicated teachers.

Towards the middle of the debate, the scientists seemed to change their tone, “Science and the arts are the pillars for life.” Well, I wholeheartedly agree. The production of art is uniquely human and we always have done it. Why we do it is debated as much as what it is, but perhaps Oscar Wilde nailed it with, “All art is quite useless.” In that it has no practical value, but is bursting with spiritual an emotional value and in this way we know we are alive.

Where do we go from here? Well, keep the debate going and sign up for for a such as

To return to Sir Ken and Saturday Live, he wants, as we all do confident products of our education system. We have that in spades, but they are confident in their ignorance. To paraphrase Bertrand Russell, the ignorant have no doubt, while the clever are full of doubt. This video clip amply illustrates the point.

Here's more from Sir Ken:

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Sleepy Teenagers

I have just read this about training teenagers to sleep,
Again, we have wheel reinvention. There is something called the flicker response that fires up the reptillian brain for food or danger. Either way, it is stressful. What TV and computers do is also fire up this flicker response. Many teachers know this.

What the article does not address is that teenagers have a different diurnal rhythm than children and adults. Generally, they tire later and cannot get to sleep at adult and children's bedtimes as well. They also do not have the same natural getting up times, again being later. In many school districts in California, senior high schools start later and the school day is longer. Want seems to result from this is lower crime and better grades.

How about we learn from others instead of always finding out the same things in isolation.

Staffroom Cliques

I wrote this in response to a comment on a Torygraph blog

I have yet to touch on the dynamics of the staffroom/department and I'm glad you have. I have seen great teachers bullied, harassed, pushed out, suffered all sorts of horrors as a knock-on effect of the stresses occasioned by their caring 'colleagues'.
In a book called Advice to Clever Children by Celia Green, the point is made that much that appears as overt altruism is, in fact, hatred and more particularly, self-hatred. This is why these caring 'colleagues' band together in self-supporting and self-affirming groups. As such, great practitioners are a threat to them and must be eliminated.
I've often thought that survival in schools require you to have a constituency, since standing up to these groups needs support.
In workplace mobbing there are the inveterate mobbers and the inadvertent mobbers. The inadvertent mobbers see what is going on but stay distant, since they do not want the same treatment.
I have also noticed that the inveterate mobbers know all the talk, the jargon, acronyms et c., which tries to systemise the bleedin' obvious and claims that this is what they do to claim their implied assertion that they are great teachers - supported by their clique.
I came to teaching from a career in business as a positive choice and not due to redundancy or any other negative reason. This business background affords me the notion that the further away a worker is from the bottom line, the more likely they are to get involved in political and careerist machinations. Closer to the bottom line, one sees that the bottom line is affected negatively by such activity.
I was once told by a wise teacher that small minds discuss people, larger minds discuss ideas.
I think I am advocating the selection of teachers of greater maturity.

Friday, 11 March 2011

We Don' Need No Edge You Kayshun: Was Waters Being Ironic?

I wrote the following in response to Katherine Birbalsingh's Torygraph blog and the discussion that followed.
I'm sorry if you were inticed in thinking there was going to be something about Floyd, because there is nothing.

I saw a cartoon in the Independent once that said Britain compares itself to Germany ten times more than Germany compares itself to Britain. Perhaps Germany should compare itself more often to Britain, because the same debate is starting there that happened here thirty years ago that has led us to this awful state of state education. If they observe us more closely, perhaps they can avoid our parlous problems.
I taught Theory of Knowledge for the International Baccalaureate Diploma for many years in which students were expected to develop sophisticated argumentative skills and present these arguments in a balanced and rational way. In class discussion and in their reading, they were presented with many different opinions and analyses without fear. For example, Japan's history of WWII, China's version of Tiananmen Square, the Israeli-Palastine conflict et c.
It often struck me that we could not do these things without getting into troubel, if they were in a British state school. I cannot imagine the alternative narratives of the reasons for Britain's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan or the morality of fractional reserve banking being discussed.
I could do these things, possibly, because the students before me were the children of the great and good and therefore it was acceptable for them to develop the critical faculties that might allow them to come to the conclusion that most of the world is being shafted, because they are not among the shafted.
After all, it has been observed that NICRA activists were all grammar school educated, as were many of the other groups in the rest of the free world similarly educated that led to the great upheavals of 1968 and led, eventually to nearly thirty years of bloodshed in Northern Ireland.
To further this argument, in whose interests would be a well educated populace? (rhet.) The idea of the philosopher soldier or the shop assistant with whom you can discuss 3 down in the Times crossword is very nice, but hardly practicable.
On the other hand, true democracy can only come about in a well educated, critical thinking community. It seems the focus of education in this country in my absence has shifted heavily towards utility, or at least has tried to, but utility without critical thinking skills is useless.
I saw another cartoon in the Telegraph of a Conjeror saying,
". . . For my next trick, I will attempt to fail a GCSE . . ."
Apropos of nothing at all.

Monday, 28 February 2011

The British State Education System: An International Educator's Perspective

It was interesting to read the responses to Katherine Birbalsingh's book To Miss with Love insofar as most of the negative comments, and since it was in the Grauniad, most of the comments were negative, the 'counter arguments' were not so thinly veiled argumentum ad hominen. When your opponents resort to this, you know that they are bankrupt of ideas and your ideas are striking home and so, in desperation, they go for the provenance of the argument rather than the argument itself. This tactic is dishonest discourse, but it is disheartening that it is so effective, since so few are savvy enough to know the difference.

Nowhere in any of the comments and diatribes could I find comment from someone with experience of other educational systems and the British systems and the concomitant balance that these other perspectives afford. International educators do not only have experience of the international school system regulated by the conditions and stipulations of The Council of International Schools, The Middle States Association, the International Baccalaureate Organization and Cambridge International Examinations et c., but also of many other national systems. There are the national systems of their host countries and the systems of their students from national systems new to international education, necessitating the international educator to articulate the student's home system with the international system.

In the absence of anyone better to comment, I will step up to the plate. My credentials are: five years teaching in a London comprehensive, thirteen years as an international educator, one year again in the English system as a head of department and as a supply teacher and six months as a private tutor. I am a founding teacher of a heavily over-subscribed international school in Germany Lastly, my children have been in the German state system all their lives, since I did not want my children attending the same school in which I taught.

In comparison to the experiences of international schools and other national systems, I have found the current English state system trivialised, bureaucratic, hyper-accountable, dogmatic, anti-intellectual, politically correct, an inflexible, hide-bound orthodoxy and predicated on the lowest common denominator.

International comparisons such as OECD's PISA Study should shout Britain's failures to everyone. In Germany when the first PISA study was published, there was public uproar and outrage, since Germany did a lot worse than the Germans anticipated. It was in every news bulletin and big news in every newspaper and periodical. At the time I asked friends and teaching colleagues about it and found that there was almost nothing reported. Britain came eleventh in that study, not fourth as nearly every commentator insists. In a report in The Independent about a year later suggested that Britain had cheated in selecting the schools for the study. Britain declined to take part in the next PISA study on math in 2003. Very interesting, that. Taken overall, Britain has done very poorly, especially when you look at the types of questions given in the tests.

Many comparisons between different examination types have been done, but I find IGCSEs much more rigorous than GCSEs, with or without coursework. Ofqual and QCA say they are equivalent, but, as Mandy Rice-Davis said, “They would, wouldn't they.” Independent schools who offer IGCSEs take a very diplomatic stance when asked what the difference is, they would too, wouldn't they. It is instructive to read what students say.

My younger daughter spent two days in an English comprehensive school, when, due to family circumstances, she had to live with me. She found that, academically, she was at least three years ahead in most subjects compared to her English class mates. She based this on the grade she was in when she did the same material. Since she had to keep her place in her Gymnasium (grammar school) and this could not have been done in an English school, I had to home-school her. She also reported that in physics class, a subject she had only started that academic year, she had done all the work for the whole lesson within the first five minutes and was highly praised by her teacher. When asked by her peers how she did this, she said that she had read the instructions on the board and followed them. In history, she reported that all her peers seemed to know anything about was The Second World War and not much of that. In general, she found her English peers quite unsophisticated and parochial, and very indisciplined and lacking in diligence . This, from a girl who was on the point of losing her place in her German school for just these reasons. To put her assertion to the test, I downloaded some A' Level papers and mark schemes. She did them; I marked them; she did well.

My experience of class discipline was much the same. Mostly it took the form of a general buzz of off-task conversations and cross class calling out. These students were good kids who genuinely did not know what I was talking about when I spoke of discipline and diligence, since this behaviour was fine for every other teacher they encountered in their school lives so far. When I asked older colleagues who had experience of the changes in the last thirteen years of my absence, I was told that this is what the students have been culturised to expect – very little un-engaging content and only one logical step per lesson, and no sanctions to compensate for the lack of engagement.

The amount of paperwork I had to complete was huge. This would not have so bad if it served any purpose, but it does not very much. This was soul destroying to document something that in all probability would not be read in support of, and given tacit agreement to a system that seems to be devoid of real education. When I asked colleagues about this, they said they just got on with it, but knew it was a waste of time. They also said that they got a lot of bureaucrat stuff from other schools and just changed the wording here and there. One teacher I came across taught engaging stuff beyond the scheme of work, just so she felt she could look herself in the mirror and still call herself a teacher. She was very well regarded by her students, but felt always in danger of denunciation as a heretic.

To assuage this mountain of pointless paper productivity, many schools had bought in schemes of work and lesson plans and one was expected to stick to these plans rigorously. I asked about the sense of this, since the people drawing things up have no knowledge of my teaching style and pedagogic strengths or my individual students' needs. I was told that these were very old-fashioned ideas, except the students' needs and I was referred to 'personalisation', Assessment for Learning, differentiation and Individual Learning Plans. But these plans could not, by their nature take the students' needs into account. These are not new ideas, but have been assumed traits of great teachers for years to such an extent that the new associated jargon was unnecessary. The fact that it is now jargonised is probably a good thing to raise the awareness of these traits to the mediocre teachers, but to document them to the detail dictated is absurd. The standards in my school in Germany are very high, there are no discipline issues worth mentioning, there are great student/teacher relationships and teachers are not always looking over their shoulders in case The Evil Elf of Safety and his Safety Nazis or some other witch-hunting statutory body starts rooting around in their professional lives, and all accomplished by great teachers who have the trust of SMT, parents and students without the need for the hyper-justification paperwork. A standard timetable in most international schools is 28 lessons out of a 40 lesson week. Extra-curricular activities are voluntary, but are very popular with both students and teachers. The teachers are very hard working, not from fear of being seen as slackers, but for the joy of their vocation and this extra work has direct effects on their students.

The beauty of the International Baccalaureate Organization's system of education is that the curricula is designed with close cooperation and significant input from the teachers who deliver the programmes. The skills, attributes and learner profiles are set out clearly in nearly every document the organization produces and sees skills and content as mutually dependent, rather than the so-called 'skills based' education in the UK, which seems to suggest that knowledge content is unimportant. I find it astounding that this decoupling has such wide currency in the UK system. It is like trying to learn to ride a bike without the bike.

I could not imagine UK state schools running the IB Diploma, since the teaching of one of the core subjects, Theory of Knowledge (ToK) would run counter to many pieces of dogma held sacred to the politically correct. The amount of times I have been told that I could not say this or that, or use certain vocabulary, since the students would not understand. Well, the more you can say, the more you can think and if that were the case, none of us would ever learn to talk at all. I do know of a state sixth form college that did the IB Diploma, but stopped it, because its students understood it required a lot more work and involved tougher exams than taking three A' Levels.

The current regime seems to be predicated on a curious interpretation of equality that assumes success as the lowest common denominator and is patronisingly and condescendingly class based. I am from a poor, working class, single parent, Northern Irish, Catholic family at a time when violence and death on the streets was quotidian. Deprived? You would be forgiven to think so. But no, I had teachers who taught me to question everything: to be relentlessly curious. I have managed to gain degrees from UCL (2010 world No. 4) and Cambridge (2010 world No. 1) and had a mother who knew the only way out of poverty for us was education. Mom and my teachers afforded me an interesting, eventful, enjoyable and fulfilling life. They expected the highest standards and did much to assuage any material disadvantage in my young life.

In my tutoring of GCSE and A' Level students, I help them to develop bite-sized, rational, global conceptual frameworks from which to view all the material for the whole course as presented in their schools. This proves very helpful for my students, but is an unacceptable approach in the schools of which I have experience. Is it not strange that in one educational paradigm I am an exceptionally gifted teacher, as my former students' testimonials attest, but in another, I am . . . Something else. It is just this point that will make change so difficult to effect. The excellent practitioners in one paradigm are something else when the paradigm changes. The system needs a paradigm change and necessarily this will be resisted, not just for reasons that paradigm changes are difficult in themselves. So many educational professionals have bought into the paradigm and their salaries and careers are predicated on it, from the NQT to those in educational research.

What is the answer? Well, Free Schools look promising, but adopting an independent structure like the IBO for GCSEs IGCSEs A' Levels, PreU, MYP and IB Diploma and employing bodies like CIS to ensure standards. Where would that leave Ofsted and QCA? Well, we could save that money.

Monday, 14 February 2011

The Pendulum Swings From Misogyny to Misandry

Radio 4's Women's Hour piece on gastronomy suggested that males involve themselves in the underlying science in the process, hence molecular gastronomy. I have taught chemistry and physics for 20 years to both genders and I have found that if the teacher gives no signals of differing expectations, then there is very little difference between the genders in their approach, involvement or enthusiasm for the subjects. Of course, it also helps if the teacher is inspirational and the student has that degree of inspiration from grade 6 (year 7) onwards.

The commentator's implication that a scientific and a micro-causational approach is a male approach and, as such was somewhat distasteful. She could not say how this compared and contrasted with what she would interpret as the woman's approach. The implication was that males involve themselves in stripped-down, reductionist experimentation and females did, er . . . Something else. Something inscrutably, ephemerally and quintessentially female.

This raises two questions: to what degree has society's 'acceptance pendulum' swing away from misogyny to misandry and to what degree do we confuse the manifestations of nature and nurture.

Not so long ago, the mother-in-law, wife and blond jokes were acceptable. Not so today, and quite right. Nothing gets a political point across better than humour. Guys are now the butt of jokes, as much by men (to show just how right-on they/we are) as women. The pendulum has swung from, 'a woman's place is in the kitchen' to 'a man's place is in the wrong', or, my personal favourite, since it alludes to Schrödinger's Cat, Quantum Theory and Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principal: If a man is talking to himself alone in a wood, is he still talking nonsense? We guys are now expected to accept that we are useless, emotionally fragile, emotionally illiterate, solipsistic, brutish dullards and that those with two x chromosomes are infinitely superior. Women can multi-task, they don't get man-'flu', they are more resilient et c.

Studies have shown that women cannot multi-task any better than men. If the stereotype of man-'flu' is shown to be an actual physiological or psychological phenomenon, then why is it not treated with sympathy, rather than thinly humour-veiled disdain and cited as more 'evidence' of wimpish lack of resilience.

After 20,000 years of a largely misogynist world to complain about the minor excesses of the pendulum starting to swing the other way, at least in Britain, is a tad churlish and it is only to be expected that in the drive toward equality of gender value that we should overshoot the mark. But overshot the mark we have. For example, during a supper, I fell into conversation with a woman who describes herself as a 60s feminist about these issues. She held forth about the reasons why there existed no gender antonym (if that term exists - if not, then allow me to coin it) for misogyny, citing many instances of scholarship on the subject. When I said that the word is 'misandry', she said, rather tetchily that, "That's just a made up word!" I was a bit taken aback by this since she is a monumentally clever and very well educated person. I had clearly stamped on a nerve (guys, eh?) and blurted out, "But all words are made up." Which didn't help much. Clearly, it was not appreciated that a man should challenge a scholarly feminist world view; manifestly misogynist, I shouldn't wonder.
On another occasion discussing these issues with two women, one a very dear friend and, how can I put this delicately . . . boots with the other foot, so one can assume sound feminist credentials and another whom I can describe as a friendly acquaintance. To illustrate my point I told a joke: What's as offensive as a male chauvinist pig? . . . A woman who won't do what she's told. My chum laughed heartily, since it is very good satire. The friendly acquaintance was outraged and I was downgraded instantly to 'acquaintance' and have remained so. She would not accept that since she made no objection to the pejorative term 'male chauvinist pig' she was expressing an acceptance of the implicit stigmatization of a gender from a linguistic determinism point of view, she was guilty of society's current trend towards misandry. This acceptance was compounded by her over-reaction to the second pejorative about women not doing what they are told. I think she missed the point of the joke - the hypocrisy. Since I was already in the merde, I picked her up on her Herstory. She claimed that etymologically history is derived from the male personal pronoun. I was surprised I managed to re-enervate my masseter muscles from the effect of slack-jawed incredulity this claim had on me in a timely manner. I said that our word history has its etymology from Greek histor meaning story and is unrelated to the classical Greek male personal pronoun (αυτου). It did not assuage her irritation with me that Herstory is a perfectly valid neologism (relatively) to describe the study of women's history, women's historical perspectives and historiography.

In my life as a teacher and a parent of girls, I have observed that if one is fastidious in making no assumptions about how boys and girls think and having always been sensitive and sceptical towards society's assumptions and stereotypes, then many boys show many traits that society determines as feminine and vice-versa. There are unquestionable differences in brain development, especially during adolescence and the intimacy of the central nervous system and the endocrine system must have a profound effect. I think we tend, by our gender expectations, whether implicit or explicit, to enhance difference and inculcate differences where perhaps none exist.

The sooner this pendulum swing attenuates the better. The sooner the True Fallacies and argumentum ad populum on this issue the better. Let's have some balance.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Oh Dear! It's Official! I'm a Parodic Curmudgeon

I think one of the reasons satire works so well at getting a point across is that the humour makes it palatable and easy to swallow, or, as the old adage has it, many a true word spoken in jest. In today's Ed Reardon's week on Radio 4, the eponymous curmudgeon takes the post of writer-in-residence at the uni[versity] where his son-in-law is a professor of music specialising in Glam Rock, The Osmonds, The New Romantics, and Take That. His daughter is also on the teaching staff and gives seminars on things like dream catchers. To prepare him for the interview, she tells him not to correct the interview board's grammar, since none of them would ever have heard of a split infinitive.
This sets the scene for Ed's impassioned [near] monologue on the state of the uni[versity] system in response to his professor's interruption of his lecture and her instructions to his students to write fictious begging letters for funds from prospective benefactors for the uni[versity],
  "Stop writing class. You're not doing any of that. Fiction is one thing; craven mendacity is quite another. In another module, probably. No doubt in the Dominoes Pizza Symposium Suite.
  "Ed, are you withholding cooperation?"
  "Well, in future, don't."
  "Oh, well, in future you might want to reflect on the total moral bankruptcy of the education system. All it does is subscribe to this shallow narcissism and moronic self-interest of this solipsistic age with its idiotic buzz words like back in the day and up close and personal and its obsession with whether Adrian Childs still has the same chemistry at six in the morning with Christine . . . Thing . . . What's her name? Well, if that's all it teaches you, you might as well not bother going to university at all. Get up! Go on! Leave! Now!"

Sadly, from what I've gleaned from my experience of undergraduates at many so-called uni[versities] today and from the reflections of colleagues, this has quite a whiff of reality. It puts me in mind of a quotation from a Dario Fo farce Accidental Death of an Anarchist,
  "Everyone enjoys a good scandal; it's like the smell of your own shit."

Maybe the diminutive, uni is a neologistic attempt to convey a deeper diminution.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

How To Teach Proper

Or why great teachers can't flourish in the British state system.

Like the Ralf Steadman's depiction of Leonardo Da Vinci, I stared in panic at a blank screen, wondering how on earth am I going to tackle this idea. I have been impelled to write this by the encouragement of friends, colleagues, what former students have said about my teaching and the current zeitgeist in education in this country. I was shaken out of the blank-screen-panicky reverie by the phone. It was the garage to tell me that they really need to change the water pump along with the timing belt and asking me if I wanted it done. I got a little flustered and blurted out that on the scale of things, an extra £100 pales into insignificance compared to the task in hand. Bless her, the garage lady asked me about the subject matter. Put on the spot, I said that the education reforms of the last 15 or so years had thrown out the baby with the bath water. By removing the autonomy of teachers to improve the performance overall, they removed the very autonomy that allowed great teachers to be great.
I suppose it would be alright if these reforms actually worked in terms of how well educated the cohorts that have been schooled under the extant educational paradigm compared to previous generations and in comparison to their peers from other educational cultures, but it would appear not. I suppose it also depends on how one defines 'worked' and 'well educated', but if you discount the extremes of Orwellian lexical elasticity in definitions that seem to pervade the current regime, then under these terms, it also has failed.
To some extent the reforms have tried to codify some of the facets of great teachers and jargonise them as though they were new inventions, like scaffolding, AFL (Assessment for Learning) and differentiation. This is like trying to codify walking. On one level walking is simple, but try to program a machine to walk as humans do and you see how difficult it is. To some extent in the modern teaching milieu this mountain of work has been removed from the teachers by commercial bodies that do these things, but these things are constructed without awareness of differing teaching styles and the teacher-student individual relationships. That said, the modern teacher has a mountain of bureaucratic tasks enumerating minute details that no one will read and serve very little purpose.
To return to the baby-bathwater metaphor; the baby is the trust and autonomy of great teaching and the bathwater is “. . .the bitter, the misguided, the failures from other fields [that] find in the school system an excuse or a refuge.” Bel Kaufman, Up the Down Staircase. Furthermore, to codify all the other facets of great teachers to dictate, document and document proof that the code was put into practice in the fine detail needed is impossible. In this sense, great teaching is like surfing. You know where you want to go, you know the general direction of the wave, but you must respond to the minutiae of local conditions, the eddies and counter-currents that cannot be planned for in advance. The modern British teaching milieu suggests a stereotypical wave with none of the eddies and counter currents that can catch out the less talented surfer, but the talented surfer turns to advantage.
After 20 years teaching, at first in this country and then (the majority) in an international community: having been acknowledged by students, parents, super-ordinates and the community at large as a great teacher and the observations of, & conversations with great teachers about what great teaching is, it seems appropriate to disseminate some common aspects of great teaching. I think it would be a good start to define what learning actually is.


This is what we do when we acquire knowledge, which, from an epistemological definition it is true, justified belief. In other words we believe something to be true if it is justified by reason, language, physical perception, emotion and authority. We are knowledge acquiring machines with in-built capacity for all of the above, except authority; to determine the truth from those in authority for that truth is learned from the other ways of knowing. Indeed we have an emotional need to acquire knowledge: to learn. So, here we have five ways with which to investigate the pathology of the great teacher and how the great teacher was already doing all that the reforms have tried to get all teachers to do


As the wheel reinvention of 'Scaffolding' suggests, this is a reasoned activity, but one which is immensely difficult, since it requires that the links in the causal chains are the smallest, fundamental and therefore axiomatic deductions from what went before. It is very easy to assume that you have dug down that far, but most make huge assumptions in the causal chains, which cause them to fail, necessarily. The next step is an added level of difficulty in which one must put the causal chain across with a simple immediacy, while all the time being keenly aware of assumptions one's students will be making and for the look out for questions that highlight your assumptions. These have to be dealt with immediately they occur. This may be difficult to spot, but if you have encouraged your students to ask question when they have questions and they are inculcated in the ways of reasoned causality, they will seldom hold back, I've found. It is a case of them helping you to help them.
Making an atmosphere where questioning is easy takes a bit of time. I told all my classes that it was their duty as well as their right to ask questions. The fear of looking stupid in front of one's peers holds many of us back, but there are few stupid questions, and I tell them, to most student questions about 66% of a class will want to hear the answer to settle any insecurity and the rest to get a different perspective on what has been learned. In this way, students take ownership of their learning and therefore value it more highly.
If more rationality were employed, the amount of time spent on many 'hard' GCSEs could be reduced dramatically. I had to construct a curriculum for this cohort for the IB Middle Years Programme for chemistry and physics that had to contain the same level of knowledge and problem solving as the IGCSE, but in a 6th of the time. For chemistry, I made it quasi-historical and entirely heuristic in which students had to interpret their own empirical data and subtitled the course Why Stuff is the Way It Is. For physics, I took the tack, Why Stuff Happens and again in which the students' own empirical data is used to draw conclusions and in which energy flow is the central motif, starting with mechanics (and drawing analogies with electrostatics and current) leading to circular motion and hence to waves (and drawing analogies with electromagnetism and induction).
Wave properties allows exploration of sound and light (and the rest of the electromagnet spectrum), which further allows exploration of the very big (the universe) and the very small (the atom and beyond). It is, therefore, possible to make a two year course bite-sized. I have put these into practice and they work. I have recently undertaken to do online courses based on this experience and found that by using simulators to give empirical data (complete with random errors), even this small amount of time can be reduced to ten lessons. I have also included maths whose central theme is historical from Euclidean geometry (the axiomatic system), to trigonometry (these are just simple ratios), Cartesian geometry and graphs from which everything else emanates up to basic calculus.
There seems to be an assumption that children cannot reason in the abstract. I have found this to be false, since with self-belief and confidence they have a context in which to express their innate powers.

To include explicitly inductive and deductive reasoning in everything one does will inculcate in the students the confidence in their own innate reasoning powers and allow them, with practise, to be cleaner, clearer and more discriminating thinkers. Furthermore, the exploration of different intellectual paradigms often allows new paradigms to be arrived at syllogistically, this is lateral thinking.
It appears to me that the teaching establishment is distrustful of students reasoning abilities. Some do it well and some not so well. Those who do it not so well can be trained; it is one of the only things for which I would advocate rote learning in as much as this could be considered rote learning.


In the modern milieu, this is a contrived task that trivialises one of the great teachers' greatest talents. If one has 25 students in a class, there are at least 25 different ways the material can be assimilated at each point, so, if a lesson has four main points, then you have 254 (390,625) ways to differentiate. To plan a differentiated lesson, therefore is a monumental, if not impossible. The great teacher differentiates by knowing their students and their learning styles and incorporates these into the lesson plan. To plan a different lesson based on two or three groups in terms of expected outcomes is demeaning to the student and sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy. I differentiate in class time by sitting and conversing with each student during problem solving activities. That way, I can appreciate their thinking and how it is helpful or unhelpful in context. Appreciating this allows me to construct a series of questions that refines the logic for that student. Those students that finish first can involve themselves in peer coaching, which is helpful for both peer and coach and in extension work that pursues the subject matter more deeply. As one of my former students said recently on my website, “Leaving one of Mr. Stickley's lessons without understanding was not an option.” In other words everyone got it and some had deeper understanding, and not, some got a bit and some got a bit more and some got it all.
There is no substitute for knowing your students, but I've seen in the modern comprehensive a combination of initiatives that obviate this most important need. They are, the two week timetable and the sharing of classes between two or more teachers undertaken by heads to rationalise their most expensive resources and save money. This means that a teacher could have up to fifteen classes and see some of them only once a fortnight. I would say it is impossible to know up to 370 students when one see them so infrequently. It is also an administrative nightmare for departments to coordinate all of this fragmentation.

Assessment for Learning.

Great teachers have done this for centuries if not millennia. One should assess to enhance learning not by giving the correct answer, but asking further questions that facilitate the student finding it for themselves. It should also praise the attempts made and to praise novel thinking, even if it led to unexpected outcomes, and of course praise outstanding work When further questions have been asked, the student is expected to answer them for their recorded achievement to increase. What I have seen is the answers given to students, but phrased as questions; this is lip service. Also, for students that do very little, the teacher has a lot more to write; giving even more answers – so who is being assessed? Furthermore, the trivial receives high praise. This means that grades awarded are skewed towards the higher end – classic over-grading – in contrast to a normal, bell-shaped population curve. There is an irony here; in maths (probability) and the sciences (random errors) normal, or natural population curves are what matters, so how do we justify these upwardly skewed populations other than deeming them unnatural and a fix.

Bite-sized Learning

It takes great skill to present a complete conceptual framework with precision in a short space of time. Prof. Brian Cox can do this and great teachers do this too. This is my form of bite-sized learning. It requires a thorough understanding of the subject matter far beyond the level to be taught, it requires good knowledge of other disciplines from which to draw analogies (in my case, history, the social sciences, art and German), which in turn requires the teacher to be a life long learner and passionately curious, to use Einstein's description of himself.
The modern curricula takes a different view. They take the conceptual framework and split it up and populate the rest with data and 'skills'. The skills are rudimentary and students usually have them anyway and the data represents a return to learning by rote of which the old system was accused of being guilty.
This form of learning is enshrined in The National Curriculum and GCSE Specifications (what was wrong with syllabuses?) and passed down to teachers in the form of ready made curricula complete with lesson plans. Ready made lesson plans save time, but they are written from someone else's teaching style; it is like wearing someone else's clothes – they don't fit. There is, however, an expectation that these off-the-shelf lesson plans are adhered to strictly. This removes another talent of the great teacher; that of recognising learning opportunities presented by the students and capitalising on it. It often requires that the teacher postpone the planned lesson to address the students' clearly stated enthusiasms. The subject matter of the impromptu lesson might be something that was to be addressed later in the scheme of work, or tangential to it, but that allows a deeper understanding of the material in the scheme of work. I have found this is frowned on, despite the huge leaps in understanding of the subject material and the consolidation of the warmth and trust within the teacher/student relationships.


It is axiomatic that students would learn better if the subjects were more relevant to their lives. Curricula have tried to incorporate this with what they think is relevant? I find this extraordinarily condescending and patronising that these things can be determined in a one-size-fits-all way. The great teacher knows their students and knows what kinds of things fire them up and plans for it: knows that most of us can do far more than we think we can: knows that self-belief can unlock these latent talents and knows that everyone wants to be smart and not look stupid. This is what is really relevant to students. This idea is at odds with the idea of Individual Learning Plans, since, if the teacher has already planned for their students enthusiasms and has personally intervened for differentiation and Assessment for Learning in the ways already described, what purpose do they serve.
Utility is often cited as relevance which, of course it is, but again I find the definition of utility very simplistic and superficial. It seems the focus of utility is to prepare students for work, and so, the greater the utility the higher the students' prospects are in terms of financial gain and standard of living. There also seems to be an assumption that standard of living is synonymous with quality of life; it is not. I would argue that broadening horizons, developing critical thinkers and life-long learners is of greater benefit both to the individual and to society. This seems to me to be of greater utility.

Relationships and Attitudes

The students of the great teacher know that the teacher enjoys their company, individually and severally: that they will have fun: that they will learn something: That the lesson is planned for them individually and severally: that the teacher will present data only as part of a rational conceptual framework, so that rote memorization is reduced to a minimum: that they are in an atmosphere of warmth, care and mutual trust: that they will be treated fairly and equally: That the teacher has made no assumptions about them on the basis of gender, race, culture year team meetings or staffroom chatter – they are a tabala rasa, but will be aware that the student might be affected by real or invented stereotypes: that the teacher expects high standards and will do everything to ensure these standards are met by everyone: that the teacher has faith in them that will never diminish or be disappointed: That difficulties encountered will be dealt with immediately and effectively: That the teacher will bring out that which is latent: that the teacher will allow freedom for exploration, but will still get the needed material done: that their work will be assessed with constructive criticism and represented in a timely manner: that their teacher is a real, 3D person: that their teacher is a critical thinker and a life-long learner and knows that the teacher learns as much from them as they do from the teacher.
No student is in any doubt that the teacher is in command and that it is the confidence in this that allows them so much freedom. Disciplining individuals is done in private to protect the dignity of the student and at the first opportunity let the student know that the matter is dealt with and that it will not affect their good relations. It is also proportional and immediate, since justice delayed is justice denied. Why then do we have to give 24 hours notice of impositions for unhelpful behaviour? Or indeed that it has been taken out of the teachers hands almost totally to use their professional judgement. It would appear that teachers have a lot of responsibility, but very little authority. This is a characteristic of poor, bullying management. In this case, it is the system itself.

Many of us are terrified to be ourselves in case we get ostracised for individuality, yet, as teachers we are supposed to celebrate individuality. The great teacher has the strength of character to express their individuality. Often this will be seen as eccentricity, but it really is just being a real 3D person, since had we all the confidence in our own individuality, we would all be eccentrics (or not, since there would be no norm which which to assess it.) This makes the great teacher a character. Being a character on its own is not sufficient, the great teacher is also a life-long learner and so has a very broad knowledge base, apart from their own stated specialism. This allows the great teacher to draw analogies with other disciplines to the matter in hand: to draw on it to get attention or to dismiss humorously the heckler: to engage in conversations with students beyond one's own specialism, that enhances one's standing, affection and respect and to allow the teacher to be a teacher first and a specialist teacher second.

Many great teachers are provocative and enjoy robust discourse. In my case, my Irish suspicion of external authority based on positional power, means that I lampoon the Ship of Fools. I'm not a big suit and tie man (preferred work clothes: jeans and polo shirt in winter, bermudas and polo shirt in summer), so in British schools I ham it up with day bows, interesting waistcoats and ties and a Grateful Dead motif on the breast pocket of my lab coat. This elicits comment often attempting ridicule as it is intended, but the broad education and Irish love of satire allows me a gentle humorous reposte that turns the situation immediately. I am seldom bested in these exchanges, but when I am, I accede gracefully to the greater talent, since it encourages further exchanges.

Teaching is an emotional business; one does it for one's soul and for its intrinsic value. To do it properly; to be constantly highly vigilant and sensitized to deal effectively with questions and ideas in the cut and thrust of lively, engaging classes; to plan meticulously, but subtly to pack the greatest punch: to capitalise on every opportunity for learning and relationship building and to do all the other things great teachers do takes a lot of energy and thought. Great teachers are born. You can enhance skills, like behaviour modification, but if the talent is not there, all that can be done is train teachers to mechanical tasks, thereby devaluing the most honourable vocation to the level of a junior clerk.


There seems to be attitude that the teacher must restrict their vocabulary to that of their students not including subject specific words. The great teacher acknowledges the smaller vocabulary of the students, but, instead of trying to work around it, meets it head on. If something can be described better with one word than 4 or more, then introduce it and define it. After all, linguistic determinism suggests very strongly that the more we can say the more we can think. Furthermore, if we applied this thinking to babies, they would never learn to talk – imagine a whole nation of Kaspar Hausers.

Class Differences

I know it is very non-pc these days to talk about class, unless one claims to be working class, but without referring to class, I think it will be more difficult to understand the different approaches. In a previous article I said that one of the reasons that middle class children do better academically is that their family and social milieu is more academic and that many of the educational reforms sought to address this. Katherine Birdalsingh in a recent video took this up and expanded upon it that it was the middle classes who have designed these reforms. I agree with her which is why I think that the reforms are offensively patronising and condescending to the working class. One of the differentiating motifs between the middle and working classes is that of gratification (according to the middle classes.) The middle classes can defer their gratification and the working classes cannot and need theirs immediately.
This has informed the reforms since bite-sized (as defined by modern curricula) and superficial and contrived relevance is predicated on immediate gratification and the short attention span it suggests. People have short attention spans for dull, uninspiring things and situations. In my experience gratification comes from success and not its illusion.