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.