Category Archives: Society

The Pedagog Teaches PRAD

Queen Mary made the doleful prediction that, after her death, you would find the words ‘Philip’ and ‘Calais’ engraved upon heart. In a similar vein, the historians of futurity might observe that, in the early years of the 21st century, the dread letters “R.I.” were burned indelibly on the hearts of many of the teachers of Britain.

In a characteristically iconoclastic post, blogger Requires Improvement ruminates on those very same words that he adopted as his nom de guerre: R.I. or “requires improvement”.

He argues convincingly that the Requirement to Improve was, in reality, nothing more than than a Requirement to Conform: the best way to teach had been jolly well sorted out by your elders* and betters and arranged in a comprehensive and canonical checklist. And woe betide you if any single item on this lexicon of pedagogical virtue was left unchecked during a lesson observation!

[*Or “youngers”, in many cases.]

But what were we being asked to confirm to? Requires Improvement writes:

It was (and to an extent, still is) a strange mixture of pedagogies which probably didn’t really please anyone.

It wasn’t (and isn’t) prog; if a lesson has a clear (and teacher-defined) success criterion, it can’t really be progressive. Comparing my experience as a pupil in the 1980’s with that of the pupils I teach now, they are much better trained in what to write to pass exams, and their whole school experience is much more closely managed than mine was. 

Equally, it wasn’t (and isn’t) trad; if the lesson model is about pupil talk, or putting generic skills above learning a canon of content, it can’t really be traditional teaching.

I think that Requires Improvement has hit the nail squarely on the head here. What we were being asked (and in many schools, are still are being asked) to do is teach a weird hybrid Frankenstein’s monster of a pedagogy that combines seemingly random elements of both PRogressive and trADitional pedagogies: PRAD, if you will.

As C. P. Scott said of the word television that no good could come of a word that’s half Latin and half Greek, I feel that no good has come of the PRAD experiment.

While many proponents of PRAD counted themselves kings of infinite pedagogic space, congratulating themselves on combining the best of progressive and traditionalist ideologies, the resulting unhappy chimera in actuality reflected the poverty of mainstream educational thought.

But though our thought seems to possess this unbounded liberty, we shall find, upon a nearer examination, that it is really confined within very narrow limits, and that all this creative power of the mind amounts to no more than the faculty of compounding, transposing, augmenting, or diminishing the materials afforded us by the senses and experience. When we think of a golden mountain, we only join two consistent ideas, gold, and mountain, with which we were formerly acquainted.

— David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748)

Rather than a magical wingèd lion that breathes fire, PRAD is a stubby-winged mishmash that can’t fly, can’t lay golden eggs, and that spends its miserable days hacking up furballs. It is time to put it out of its misery.

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Brownian Motion, Staff Rooms and Bromeliads

Individuals aren’t naturally paid-up members of the human race, except biologically. They need to be bounced around by the Brownian motion of society, which is a mechanism by which human beings constantly remind one another that they are…well…human beings.

— Terry Pratchett, Men At Arms

Happiness is . . . not having an office.

I had a job once where I had an office. It was a quite a nice office. And I had it all to myself. It was a quiet, pleasant little space with a small kitchen nearby. It even had natural daylight through a large window Perfect, you might think.

But I grew to hate that office. You see, I think that teachers — more than anyone, perhaps — need, occasionally, to be “bounced around by the Brownian motion of society”. 

What is Brownian motion? Well, it was first observed by botanist Robert Brown in 1827, who noted that, under a microscope, pollen grains in water seemed to “jiggle” randomly. Brown at first assumed that this motion was due to the “life force” of the pollen grains; however, he dispensed with this idea when he saw particles of stone dust (reportedly taken from the Great Pyramid to make sure they were completely and utterly devoid of life) perform the same drunken, wiggly waltz that came to be known as Brownian motion.

And there the matter rested, for a while. And then in 1905, a young patents clerk, working in his spare time at a kitchen table in a very modest apartment in Geneva, suddenly discovered the explanation — and more, much more.

The patents clerk’s name was, of course, Albert Einstein. His explanation rested on the insight that the visible pollen or dust particles were being buffeted by invisible water particles. His mathematical analysis was not only the first verifiable evidence of the actual physical existence of atoms, but also established their size. Understanding the movement and nature of the unobservable by minute and careful scrutiny of the observable…

Looking back at the job with its own office, I think I missed the simple daily dose of teacherly Brownian motion that you get by simply stepping into a staff room. Are you a little too-full-of-yourself-by-half? Some friendly ego-puncturing banter is usually on tap. At your wit’s end with a difficult student or class? A sympathetic shared eye-roll can work wonders. Plus there might even a few good ideas thrown in for good measure.

A good school staff room is not always synonymous with a “good” school, but a good staff room can make even a “bad” school bearable — enjoyable, even! — and the lack of one can make even an “outstanding” school feel like a souless and joyless treadmill.

If you are being interviewed by more than one school, choose the one that has the beat-up, well-used furniture in the staff room, replete with dirty coffee mugs and tottering piles of unmarked marking whose lower layers are being spontaneously formed into sedimentary rock by the crushing pressure from above.

Sadly, I feel that that this type of staff room is a vanishing phenomenon. I suppose that I am like a dinosaur complaining that bromeliads these days don’t taste as nice as the bromeliads they had in the old days.

Teachers today just aren’t rubbing elbows as much as they used too. H’mmm. Maybe that’s why we don’t have to wear elbow patches any more…

But that does not detract from this universal truth that should, I feel, be more universally acknowledged: if a staff room is suspiciously neat and clean and looks like an airport lounge…RUN AWAY!

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The Gamesters of Sparta

Sir. It must be considered, that a man who only does what every one of the society to which he belongs would do, is not a dishonest man. In the republick of Sparta, it was agreed, that stealing was not dishonourable, if not discovered.

— Samuel Johnson

At a recent event, the speaker asked us to consider a hypothetical conundrum: what if one GCSE Triple Science student was strong in (say) Chemistry and Biology, but significantly weaker in GCSE Physics? 

What course of action would you recommend? Extra support in Physics, was the consensus reply. 

Actually, said the speaker, the smart “Progress 8 Maximisation Strategy” would be to:

  1. Tell the student to focus her efforts entirely on Biology and Chemistry and completely ignore Physics. . .
  2. . . . but keep her entered for GCSE Physics anyway, and make sure that she goes into the exam hall and writes her name on the Physics papers, even if she does nothing else.

That way, she has ostensibly followed a full and balanced curriculum. She has, after all, been entered for all three Science subjects.  And, since Progress 8 counts only the two highest Science grades (or so I’m told), the student’s contribution to the school’s league table position would be also be secure.

H’mm. Dishonest? No. In the school’s best interests? Definitely. In the student’s best interests? Erm . . . on balance, no.

Sadly, as the character Joseph Sisko (ably played by Brock Peters) once observed on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “There isn’t a test that’s been created that a smart man can’t find his way around!” And that includes Progress 8 . . .

Sir, I do not call a gamester a dishonest man; but I call him an unsocial man, an unprofitable man. Gaming is a mode of transferring property without producing any intermediate good. 

— Samuel Johnson

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Gizza Teacher

Few who watched the TV series Boys From The Blackstuff back in 1982 could forget Bernard Hill’s affecting portrayal of Jimmy “Yosser” Hughes’ mental breakdown, as a man whose job was an integral part of his self-image struggled to come to terms with being laid off. Yosser walked the streets of Liverpool, desperately looking for a job — any job! — and plaintively asking anyone who would listen: “Gizza job. I can do that!” (“Give us [me] a job” as Wikipedia helpfully translated for non-Scousers.)

What brought this to mind was an advert for a science teaching job that I stumbled across recently which stated “No long written statement will be required”(!)

Those famous lines of W. B. Yeats occurred to me:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
   Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

And for why?  Well, the application process for any teaching job has always tended towards the recondite, rococo, recherché and — dare I say it? —  the ridiculous.

First, there was the dreaded application form, which was anywhere between four and six pages long. Always the same information required, but always in an annoyingly different format, seemingly designed with fiendish cunning to prevent cutting and pasting from any previous application form.

Second, there was the hell of writing the personal statement: write several hundred words on . . . you. Just you. “Tell us what makes you so fabulous and great. Focus on the outcomes of the many initiatives that you have recently spearheaded, both within your department and in a broader whole school context.” This type of writing does not come easily for us introverted sciencey types, I can tell you.

The fact that many schools are now openly willing to reduce the number of “application hoops” that candidates have to jump through is, to my mind, very telling. It indicates how deeply the recruitment and retention crisis is biting.

It now seems to be schools who are scouring the country, plaintively crying “Gizza teacher!” Strange times indeed.

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Feeling Lucky?

Napoleon’s generals not only had to be loyal, brave and skilled in arms (obviously enough), but the Emperor also demanded of them a more nebulously indefinable quality. When others in his entourage would laud the skills of a particular soldier, Napoleon would ask the pointed question: “Yes, but is he lucky?”

It seems to me that being lucky is the quality that, these days at least, is the one most valued in teachers by those in power above them. The old adage about success having many fathers but failure being an orphan was never truer than in today’s educational world. Examination results, or “outcomes”, are the bit-coin currency of choice in the go-getting world of “performance management” and “high stakes accountability”.

Forgive me, but I am awearied of all that talk. More and more I feel something akin to Duke Ellington’s response to long-winded analyses of the magic of jazz as being “talk that stinks up the room”.

In my career, I have faced Triumph and Disaster in terms of results. Although Kipling advised us to treat “those two impostors just the same”, the truth is that we don’t. Few human beings can. Our perceived Triumphs make us arrogant, the Disasters make us hostile and defensive.

And yet, I think I begin to see a pattern. 

My triumphs occurred when I just got on with the business of teaching: turning up, teaching solid straightforward lessons, setting and marking regular homework. I remember one (internal) observer asking a student about their past paper practice question booklet, returned with a simple percentage grade (in red pen), “And how often are you set homework like this?” and the student answering matter-of-factly: “Every week”. I was so proud. That said, the observer still gave me a “3 (requires improvement)”, citing “lack of pace”, “no plenary” and “no feedback” (when they actually meant no written WWW/EBI comments). But I carried on regardless. And that year’s results were amongst my best ever.

My Disasters seem to occur when I am scrabbling manically to follow what is currently lauded as best practice. In other words, trying to copy what other schools do — or perhaps, more accurately, what other schools say that they do — badly.

Coincidence? Possibly.

So, am I a lucky teacher, in the Napoleonic sense? Sometimes, when I have the good sense to follow my experience and instincts, rather than fads and fashions.

So what about you, when faced with the russian roulette lottery of exam results (you do know it is just a lottery, right?): Are you feeling lucky, punk?

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The Joy of a Cheese Sandwich

O tempora, o mores!

What times! What customs!

— Cicero

We are all orthorexics now.

Or so it would seem, at least to me. Orthorexia is the obsession with eating foods that the individual considers ‘healthy’. When I started teaching, a typical teacher’s packed lunch consisted of a sandwich, an apple and a packet of crisps. This was such a common combination that I remember one wag saying that such unthinking adherence to culinary group-think would even have brought joy to the heart of Josef Stalin.

But now — oh my goodness me! What times! What customs! What a huge selection of weird and wonderful Tupperware!

And the food! Growing up in North Wales in the 70s, I’m sure that the majority of food being ingested in our staff room would not have been available in most supermarkets. Perhaps not even in Llandudno ASDA where my parents, cosmopolitan souls that they were, would venture every now and again to buy exotic packets of VESTA dried foods.

But enough of Vesta packets (my favourite was the Beef Risotto, especially eaten as a sandwich), what kind of modern foods am I talking about? Examples would be Black Lentil and Aubergine Stew (“Because black lentils are so much more nutritionally dense than your everyday red lentils, darling!”), Kale and Lemon with Giant Couscous Salad or Smoked Mackerel Pilaf.

Oh lordy, it’s enough to make a chap self-conscious about his cheese sandwich, apple and packet of crisps. Except . . . the way I look at it is: food is food. The human organism is evolved to ingest any old random crap that either can’t or doesn’t run away fast enough and turn it into, well, human-stuff: snot, phlegm, fingernails parings, earwax and so on. A human being can survive for a surprisingly long time on “empty” calories, provided that a few trace nutrients are also present (“Scurvy, anyone?”).

What I do find strange about the now almost universal orthorexic mindset is the attribution of near magical properties to food-stuffs, especially the less familiar and exotic ones.The power of a secretary of state of education seems as nothing compared to that of Jamie Oliver.

That said, there is cause for concern in the amount of processed sugar consumed by youngsters and well, everyone else actually. But I cannot help but feel that there is a strong element of public performance, and perhaps even “nutritional virtue signalling”, in the eating patterns of many adults today.

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    P is for Progressive, T is for Traditionalist, Z is for Zealot

    The change of religion in Scotland, eager and vehement as it was, raised an epidemical enthusiasm, compounded of sullen scrupulousness and warlike ferocity, which, in a people whom idleness resigned to their own thoughts, and who, conversing only with each other, suffered no dilution of their zeal from the gradual influx of new opinions, was long transmitted in its full strength from the old to the young . . .
    — Samuel Johnson, A Journey To The Western Islands Of Scotland [1775]

    Old Andrew writes of a recent case in Scotland where a teacher was barred from teaching for two years because, for example, she “did not refer to success criteria” and “failed to recap the learning intentions at the end of the lesson”(!)

    Well, to some extent I have been there, done that and got the t-shirt. I have been on the receiving end of the ‘support’ that doesn’t feel particularly supportive. However, it has never reached the disciplinary stage; in part, I suppose, because I learned to ‘play the game’ and stick in a few card sorts and the like. Teacher, know thou thy observer!

    But I feel I have known what might be termed the “epidemical enthusiasm” of True Believers in the now defunct ‘Axis of Old-style-Ofsted’ model. And, yes, there was indeed a time when it seemed that many who favoured that model conversed “only with each other” and that there was no hope of any dilution of their zeal.

    It is depressing to think that these discredited ideas still hold sway in parts of our education system.

    That said, it seems to me that this is not automatically a consequence of progressive ideals; rather, it seems to me a consequence of a totalitarian mindset — an inability to trim one’s ideological sails to the winds of empirical reality, especially when one is in a position of power or authority.

    And that, I think, is something that each of us — Positive Traditionalist* or Positive Progressivist* alike — needs to guard against.

    *See @heymisssmith’s excellent post for further explanation of what I think is a useful expansion of the traditionalist vs. progressivist terminology.

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