Monthly Archives: January 2014

Knowledge vs. Skills: Big-endians vs. Little-endians?

My take on the knowledge vs. skills debate…

e=mc2andallthat

Gulliver’s Travels contains the memorable episode where two peoples are engaged in a long war over which end of a boiled egg to break first, the war of the Big-endians vs. the Little-endians:

[T]wo mighty powers have … been engaged in a most obstinate war for six-and-thirty moons past. It began upon the following occasion….the emperor … commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs. The people so highly resented this law, that our histories tell us, there have been six rebellions raised on that account; wherein one emperor lost his life, and another his crown. … It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end. Many hundred large volumes have been published upon this controversy: but the books of the Big-endians have been long forbidden, and the whole…

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Licensed to Teach?

I miss the GTC. Actually, no, scrub that. What I really miss are the reports from the GTC hearings that used to appear in the TES (you know, when it still looked like a newspaper rather than an in-flight magazine for a budget airline).

What I found fascinating was the jaw-dropping chutzpah of some of the cases. Not only could I not conceive of doing some of the stuff reported myself, but I honestly thought that not a single colleague that I had worked with over the years could come anywhere close either. Quite frankly, much of it seemed too bizarre to be true, and yet there it was, reported in sober black and white.

[The man] who recommended a curacy as the best means of clearing up Trinitarian difficulties, that “[holy] orders” are a sort of spiritual backboard, which, by dint of obliging a man to look as if he were strait, end by making him so.
George Eliot, Carlyle’s Life of Stirling.

And now along comes Tristram Hunt with yet another cunning plan to put a spiritual backbone (or a “spiritual backboard”) into the profession with a system of licenses.

In principle, I have no objection to this. There are some individuals who should not be allowed to remain in the profession. If I put my mind to it, I could probably name one or two that I have worked with over the last twenty or so years who (in my opinion) should have been chucked out. But I would have to think about it.

So, in my personal experience at least, this is not a major problem. To be blunt, the sad truth is that natural wastage from the tough environment of modern teaching will take care of most of the wasters and no-hopers. The ones who stay — we few, we happy few! — generally really want to stay.

Let me hasten to add that not that everyone who leaves is a waster or no-hoper — some leave through a lack of support or the insanely inappropriate priorities of their school or line manager.

The devil will be, as always, in the detail. I think that what I dread is a bizarre set of professional expectations drafted by someone who thinks that, by dint of obliging a teacher to look as if he or she were strait, that it will end by making them so.

For example, one of the most excellent and engaging teachers that I know is also one of the scruffiest. It would be a pity if an ill-considered set of criteria forced eccentric individuals  such as him out of the profession because they didn’t always do up their top button (are you listening, Sir Michael?).

We can but hope, because (going on past experience, at least) the profession will only have a very limited say in drafting the licensing criteria.

“Hear me. I am your new president. From this day on, the official language of San Marcos will be Swedish. Furthermore, all citizens will be required to change their underwear every half hour. Underwear will be worn on the outside so we can check.”

— The President’s victory speech , from Bananas (dir. Woody Allen 1971)

President

I have this idea about licenses for teachers and moving from a system of letter grades to number grades…

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The Myth of Pedagogy

God help me, but I really enjoy reading edu-blogs: whether they contain tips, opinions, polemical rants or genuine philosophical analysis, they are all grist to my reading mill.

However, practically all the blogs that I have read buy into what I think of as the Great Myth of Pedagogy. In fact, I think all teachers (including myself) buy into it to a greater or lesser degree. Although, on reflection, perhaps members of SLT buy into it more than most.

What is this myth? It is based on the fallacy of magical thinking:  as human beings, we all too often make causal connections or assume correlations between two events based on what is essentially superstition, rather than logic, evidence or reason.

“11Sc5 met their GCSE target grades because of the extra targeted intervention that I instigated.”

“Erm…you do know that only 3 of them ever turned up. And they were the ones that actually didn’t need to turn up.”

“Targeted, proactive intervention. It’s the way forward!”

“So — you’ll actually be doing the targeted, proactive intervention every day after school next term, then?”

“No, of course not. I can’t waste time standing in front of a whiteboard reading powerpoint slides at students! I’ll be too busy coming up with innovations like T.P.I. — targeted, proactive intervention!”

“Oh. Goody.”

As a teacher, I believe that what I do in the classroom makes a difference. I wouldn’t stay in the classroom if I didn’t believe that. However, what I am much less certain of is what exactly it is that I am doing that is actually making a difference.

Many years ago, a short story by the much underrated SF author Robert Sheckley had a profound influence on me. The story was called “Pas de Trois of the Chef and the Waiter and the Customer”. In this masterful story (which probably doesn’t sit easily in the SF genre), three narrators describe what happened in an Indonesian restaurant on a Mediterranean island some years ago.

The Chef seeks absolution for addicting the Customer to his uncommonly delicious rijstaffel dishes and precipitating the man’s decline into obesity and illness. The Waiter is racked with guilt because he used jazz music to hypnotise the Customer into overeating: he played an artfully chosen sequence of classic jazz records over the restaurant loudspeakers and observed the customer eating in time to the music. Finally, the Customer confesses that he harboured a mad passion for the young Waiter and kept eating at the restaurant because he was convinced that the Waiter was shamelessly flirting with him.

The basic shape of the story is the same according to each of the narrators; however, none of them agree on salient details such as the others’ names, nationalities or motivations. More poignantly, at the climax of the story when the Customer walks out of the restaurant for the last time, each of the characters remembers an entirely different fervidly overwrought final conversation.

Author Michel Faber (another Sheckley aficionado) writes that the message of “Pas de Trois of the Customer and the Waiter and the Customer”  is

that people inhabit different realities. By this I don’t mean that people differ in their ability to perceive the objective reality of the lives they share with others. I mean that each of us tends to live in an alternate universe, which may bear only the most incidental relationship to the universe inhabited by the next person.

There are undoubtedly some objective realities in the classroom that teacher, observer and students would agree on. But what are they? I am not sure.

The room the lesson was held in: yes. The subject matter of the lesson: probably. The absence or presence of serious misbehaviour (e.g. throwing chairs, fighting): yes. Whether the teacher was confident and knowledgeable about the lesson content: yes, probably. Whether the teacher chose the most effective activities to teach the material: no. Whether all of the students were engaged all the time: no, probably.

I hope you see my point. But where does this leave us?

My answer is: we are no worse off than before, and we are probably better off in that we have acknowledged our ignorance and we are not pretending to knowledge that we do not possess, and we are not indulging in “educational voodoo” or magical, wishful thinking.

Now I am not suggesting that this state of affairs cannot change. As more scientific research is done (perhaps along the lines of the double-blind trials or further refinements in neuroscience) we will build up more reliable knowledge of what really works in the classroom.

In the meantime, I believe that we are essentially in the “pre-scientific” age of the classroom. We are like blacksmiths before the advent of the science of metallurgy. We have a range of traditional techniques and rules of thumb that work very effectively, but we are not always sure exactly why or how they work, at least in a scientific sense. We simply know that these kinds of techniques have worked in the past. Blacksmiths knew that if they hammered a piece of iron a lot it would become harder; teachers know that “learning happens when people have to think hard” (Prof. Robert Coe‘s Simple Theory of Learning).

That’s my purpose as a teacher: to make students think really hard about stuff. By whatever means necessary.

An old proverb suggests that “It is better to light a candle than complain about the dark”. And so it is. However, the first indispensable step is to say: “Hey, is it just me or is it really dark in here?” and cautiously begin feeling your way forward.

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