Archive for April, 2007

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The Appeasers

April 30, 2007

As the authority of teachers is continually undermined in schools, a new type of teacher is coming to the fore. This type of teacher is less preoccupied with rules and respect. The new type of teacher never needs to enforce their will on the class because the class has already enforced their will on the classroom. This teacher is The Appeaser. They model themselves on three archetypes: Your Mother, Your Lover and Your Mate.

  1. Your Mother: This is a variation on a teaching style more common in primary schools and is probably more effective there. This type of teacher is typically an ample, middle-aged woman. She lavishes affection and sweets on her students, all of whom she talks to as if they were five. Teachers of this ilk are often respected for having good discipline skills as even the worst behaved boys may be reluctant to upset a substitute mother and (being unusually immature) are often the most compliant if singled out for affectionate expressions of disappointment. The main downside to this approach is the size and scale of the secondary classroom. Even the most giving of matriarchs will struggle to treat thirty year ten students as if they were all Mummy’s little boy or girl. As a result the mother hen has to treat some of her chicks as more important than others. The worst behaved boy will become Mummy’s favourite helper, always praised, always talked up, while better behaved students are neglected. This act of appeasement doesn’t just begin and end with the classroom. A maternal affection for the most immature of boys, and a habit of speaking to others as if they were not yet toilet-trained will be carried through into the life of the school. Mother will patronise other teachers, defend delinquents from the consequences of their actions, interfere with punishments given by other teachers and be the first to tell any teacher struggling with Jordan that “He’s never a problem for me”.

    In the best case scenario Mother will move into SEN and be able to use strong interpersonal skills to good effect in the small group environment. In the worst case scenario she will move into Senior Management and become the worst kind of work place bully, considering every member of staff who doesn’t like being patronised as an ungrateful child, to be constantly subject to expressions of public disapproval.

  2. Your Lover: This type of teacher is good-looking, approachable and friendly. Lover-Boy (or Girl) is willing to make inappropriate comments about the attractiveness of the students in their care. This won’t be aimed at the most attractive child, it will be aimed at the dominant personalities. The subtext is clear, co-operate and my attentions will continue. As so much poor behaviour (particularly from girls) is about getting attention of an unsavoury kind this approach may often work. This type of teacher is usually a man. Teenage boys are less likely to show respect to somebody they fancy (quite the opposite in fact). These teachers are also usually young (attention from a near peer of the opposite sex is more welcome than the leering of a middle-aged letch). The exception to the dominance of this form of appeasement by young males is the practitioner of cleavage based teaching. There exist female teachers (not always so young, not always so good looking) whose clothes are picked to appeal to the breast obsession of your average 14 year old boy and whose main interaction with the class is to lean over to help any boy that asks often to the horror of any adult in the classroom.

    I don’t suppose it’s necessary to point out the downside of efforts to teach through flirtation. The countless times where boundaries are irredeemably crossed can be seen in any good tabloid newspaper and the GTC tribunal reports in the education press.

  3. Your Mate: The most common type of appeaser, this kind of teacher attempts to win over the class by sharing their interests. Of course it’s probably a good thing when teachers can chat to their students about football, music, make-up and boyfriends. The point at which this becomes appeasement rather than sociability is the point where it starts to take up actual lesson time, students who want to learn have to sit and wait while Sir discusses the score line from the match yesterday evening, or Miss contemplates the best colour of lipstick. (It can even reach the level of unprofessional behaviour when teachers are discussing their colleagues or inviting their students to chat on MSN.) The Matey-teacher is easily identified by their colleagues. They dress like students when they’re on Inset days. They know the names of the most popular R ’n’ B artists (no educated person over the age of twenty five should know this). They put on the radio in their lessons. They seem to flinch if another teacher looks in on their classroom. An inappropriate number of students know their first name.

    When teachers are asked inappropriate questions, students are quick to defend their rudeness by saying “Steve, I mean, Mr Mate told us about his favourite music/girlfriends/underwear/drug habit, why don’t you?” To which, of course, you can’t answer “because I’m a professional not a wannabe adolescent who thinks it’s okay to wear shorts in public at the age of forty-five”

Of course this last point is the real issue with appeasers. They create the expectation that all members of staff will pander to the students rather than educate them. Students become shocked when they encounter teachers who won’t pretend to be their mate, their boyfriend or their mother and who seem more concerned with teaching. They are even more appalled when school rules are enforced and poor behaviour punished rather than shrugged off in a friendly fashion. After all, being expected to listen and behave is just a short step away from being expected to learn.

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Bad Idea for Dealing with the Behaviour Crisis #5: End Parental Choice

April 27, 2007

The leftwing option for dealing with the collapse of the secondary school system is to ensure that parents of well behaved children can’t all send their children to the same school. Instead there must be “good social mix”. The plan is that if enough middle class pupils are forced into sink schools then standards will rise. Some will even suggest closing private schools in order to bring this about.

Of course this is one of those fantasies that flies in the face of human nature. While having a challenging intake will make a school more challenging, intake is never the whole story. Middle class students forced into a school with an ethos of non-achievement and loutish behaviour will not change that ethos. They will either become withdrawn and quiet, scared of their new peer group, or they will go native and behave as badly as any other kids. In my experience it can take as little as a term at a poor school for a student who arrives wanting to learn to adopt the attitudes of the majority. The lowest common denominator will always prevail in schools because the attitudes of the worst behaved kids are enforced with intimidation, social pressures and the every present threat of violence.

Also it is incredibly difficult to stop parents trying to get their children into the decent schools. End private education and the wealthy will educate their children overseas. Use catchment areas as the admissions criteria and middle class parents will buy new homes to get into the catchment areas. Force schools to take a mix of abilities and we will soon see students encouraged by their parents to underperform in tests.

Simply put, forcing middle class kids into bad schools would take considerably more effort than it would to deal with the schools directly, and would have little effect on the school.

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Bad Idea for Dealing with the Behaviour Crisis #4: Have More Vocational Subjects

April 26, 2007

Some commentators claim that behaviour is poor because education is too academic. For some “too academic” means teaching kids to read, write and add up. Others labour under the misconception that a large proportion of pupils are still learning grammar in foreign languages, still writing essays, still learning the quadratic formula or still learning about oxbow lakes. No wonder they are rowdy, why don’t they learn useful skills instead, like plumbing?

There are two obvious flaws with this argument. The first is that the curriculum is already becoming less and less academic with no improvement in behaviour. Every year traditional academic subjects are pushed aside for easy options that push schools up the league tables. Every year the curriculum is dumbed down and existing qualifications become easier to pass. It is now possible to get the equivalent of 4 GCSEs on a vocational ICT course which is assessed by coursework. It is now possible to get a grade C in maths without even being taught trigonometry. More and more non-academic options are offered every year while academic subjects are abandoned. There has been no noticeable improvement in behaviour as a result of this process.

The second problem is in the nature of vocational education. Not all forms of education that equip you for the workplace are considered vocational. Nobody considers law degrees or doctors’ qualifications to be vocational education. The term is usually saved for skilled manual workers, or sometimes office workers. This is where we run into difficulties. A good plumber, gas fitter or builder will be highly numerate and will also need a reasonable standard of literacy just to cope with the regulations that govern their trade. A good typist will also need to be able to spell and use grammar to a high standard. Almost anyone who uses a computer effectively will need a good standard of maths and English. If somebody is receiving a good level of vocational training they will need to develop certain academic skills as well. Of course, there is a constant effort to dumb down vocational qualifications, often concentrating on taking the maths out of them, but this has the effect of making them worth less and less to employers. The net result has been the closing of more and more jobs to non-graduates and the increasing use of migrant labourers, The simple fact is there is simply not the demand in the economy for uneducated manual labourers whether they have a GNVQ or not. For a vocational qualification to be any use it needs to be as demanding as academic qualifications, not a second tier aimed at the innumerate and illiterate. If students were unable to behave for demanding academic qualifications they will be equally unable to behave for demanding vocational qualifications.

Vocational qualifications should be a way of passing on a wider variety of skills, not a way of dumbing down the curriculum even further. They certainly can’t be a way of improving behaviour.

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Bad Idea for Dealing with the Behaviour Crisis #3: End Compulsory Education

April 25, 2007

There is some appeal to returning to the nineteenth century and making education optional. While there is a case that the system should make more allowances for those who are not learning in school, but nevertheless might learn in another environment, it is greatly over-estimated as a panacea for behaviour.

Secondary education is close to optional at the moment. Local Authorities are reluctant to fine parents who aid truancy and even those who do take parents to court are still slow to set the wheels in motion. For the worst behaved students there is very little that would actually get them into the classroom if they didn’t want to go. The suggestion that compulsory education is the cause of poor behaviour in schools ignores the fact that lots of badly behaved students want to be in school. Where else would they find a ready supply of adults to torment and peers to impress? More than one teacher has suggested to me that “EBD”, the current term for students that seem unable to behave, stands for Every Bloody Day because that’s how often they turn up. Conversely, there are a lot of well behaved students who would be the first to disappear if school became optional (often to escape the kids that won’t behave).

Furthermore, it doesn’t take too many bus journeys or walks through my local park, to realise that the propensity of groups of adolescents to misbehave is not dependent on being in school. Many of the students who are out of control in school are equally out of control on the streets. While teachers might well cheer if their behaviour was moved out of the school and became somebody else’s problem, it is unlikely that anyone else would be happy, making an end to compulsory education a political non-starter.

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Bad Idea for Dealing with the Behaviour Crisis #2: Bring Back Selection

April 24, 2007

This is the option that I most often hear from teachers. If our schools are hell-holes how about we get the good kids out of them? Under selection the most able twenty percent of the population were chosen at 11 to get an academic education in grammar schools while the majority went to secondary moderns. Modern advocates of selection will vary the formula: different percentages; new ideas about what secondary moderns should be like; changes in the age of selection, but the basic idea remains the same. Education is wasted on the swinish multitudes, reserve it for the elite.

Of course the teachers who suggest this aren’t volunteering to teach in the secondary moderns, nor are they volunteering to send their own children to them. They have simply given up on saving the education system, and instead wish to save a small part of it.

The reason I don’t accept this is a solution is because the majority of schools will remain pretty much the same as ever. The only difference is they will have lost some of their brightest students and most academically qualified staff. That clearly does not sound like a solution for most people, and while I have quite a lot of sympathy for how the brightest do lose out in the current system, I can’t think of any other public service where people would seriously suggest providing a decent quality of service to only a small elite. Imagine suggesting the police should concentrate their resources on investigating burglaries affecting the people who had most to steal. Or if the National Health Service declared that the best medicine should be provided only for those who were the best examples of physical fitness.

Rejecting the possibility of providing a worthwhile education for all is an idea that I genuinely believe would only be accepted in a society as class bound as England.

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Bad Idea for Dealing with the Behaviour Crisis #1: Make Lessons More Fun

April 23, 2007

This is the favourite suggestion of educationalists, bureaucrats and other commentators that wouldn’t dare set foot in a classroom. The argument here is that if you make sure your class are being entertained then they won’t have any incentive to tell you to “go suck your mother”. All we need to do is have more games, group work, discussions, computers, interactive whiteboards and entertaining teachers and Jordan and Chantel will sit enthralled.

The obvious flaw with this argument is that discipline has gone out of the window at a time when teachers have come under more and more pressure to make their lessons fun. If we look at countries with better discipline than the UK (i.e. everywhere but a few bits of the US) we don’t see more interesting lessons. Similarly, if we go back a few decades to a time where students would be less likely to tell their teachers to perform sexual acts on their mothers we see no indication that lessons were any more fun, quite the opposite. Besides which, the biggest obstacle to lessons being enjoyable is student behaviour, and you can only experiment successfully with more enjoyable ways of learning if you have a class that are able to follow instructions and are willing to work.

Finally, I present to you the evidence from my local multiplex. Teenagers in the cinema audience have plenty of entertainment right in front of them. Yet somehow they still manage to chat, throw popcorn, and generally make a nuisance of themselves. If the latest Hollywood blockbuster can’t entertain them into good behaviour, what chance does any teacher have?

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Bad Ideas for Dealing with the Behaviour Crisis

April 22, 2007

Unlike most areas of policy, everyone has an opinion on education, apparently hardwired into their heads from their own school days. This means that a lot of the debate that gets started on various forums about entries in this blog looks a lot like this:

Oldandrew has described how bad discipline is in schools. He is wrong to think that the answer to this is to improve discipline. Bad behaviour in schools is actually a result of …..

.

Because people have such entrenched views about education they see everything written about the state of the schools as merely confirming what they thought all along, no matter how obscure the connection to school discipline, allowing the writer to suggest a panacea to behaviour problems that just so happens to be what they wanted to happen all along anyway. This writer on the TES website is even able to blame behaviour on …spelling!

The following are the main suggestions that are presented as a way of dealing with behaviour despite having little or nothing to do with the issue:

  • Make Lessons More Fun
  • Bring Back Selection
  • End Compulsory Education
  • Have More Vocational Subjects
  • End Parental Choice

In the next few days I intend to look at each in turn and discuss whether they would actually improve behaviour.

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Mixed Ability Teaching Doesn’t Exist

April 15, 2007

It’s a favourite myth of the fashionably minded that you can teach children of different ability levels all at once. This is based on the idea that you can set them different work, and help them individually or in groups. Unfortunately setting work is not teaching, and talking to small groups is not teaching a class. The one thing you cannot do with a mixed ability class is teach it. Teaching involves telling the class what they do not know. This is not possible with a class where some students already know what you want to tell them, and some of them know so little that they won’t understand it if you do tell them.

This is, of course, why the movement for mixed ability classes is indistinguishable from the movement against teaching. The mixed ability class teacher is not a teacher at all. They are, often quite explicitly, a facilitator. They are a person who designs educational activities for children but doesn’t actually tell them what they need to know. They are a friend to the child, but not an expert on an academic subject.

Of course even setting work and leaving the kids to it can be fairly impractical to arrange, and in my experience, here’s how teachers cope with mixed ability classes:

  • Colouring in and drawing. The most able can design a poster illustrating the topic in question. The least able can draw a car or write the name of the topic in bubble writing. Where mixed ability classes are most common (e.g. humanities subjects at Key Stage 3, PSHE lessons, etc) students can be forgiven for thinking that the entire subject revolves around colouring in and the drawing of posters.
  • Group work. This is actually misnamed as it is highly impractical for an entire group to do the work. A better name for it would be “Sarah, the bright girl and her friend Lucy’s work”. However as long as Kevin, who sat at the same table picking his nose, is allowed to write his name on the back of the piece of work then the teacher can claim that Kevin has also worked in the lesson.
  • Copying down. As long as you have a lot of writing in the textbook, and you have at least some actual questions for the fastest writers to do when they’ve copied the whole of pages 57-63 then an entire class can be kept busy copying down the same piece of work. Admittedly, Sarah and Lucy will have copied an entire text book by the end of the year and Kevin will never get beyond copying the first paragraph, but it keeps them all busy.
  • Ignore a large chunk of the class. Let’s face it Kevin probably wouldn’t learn anything even if he could understand what was going on. Sarah and Lucy will be fine in exams, and life regardless of whether they learn anything today. The lesson is pitched at the child who is about two thirds of the way through the ability range. Sarah and Lucy can spend any spare time they have after finishing their work decorating it with ornate borders. If you deliberately forget to tell Kevin he should be getting on with his work, he may never notice he can’t actually do it.
  • Project work. This is where you give students a variety of exercises to do, but they can be done in any lesson, in any order and they all have to go in a folder. If they finish too soon they can decorate the folder for a lesson or two.

The worst thing is that despite the fact that these are obvious scams to get round the problems of teaching an unteachable class, there are now advocates of group work and project work who believe that all lessons should be conducted in this fashion. It just goes to show the lengths teachers will go to convince themselves they are doing a worthwhile job, even when students are learning less than they would if they were sent home with a book to read.

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Gag the Student Voice

April 8, 2007

One of the latest daft ideas to become fashionable is “Student Voice”, the idea that the kids in a school need to be consulted before decisions are made. If you view schools as social institutions whose main purpose is to provide entertainment for the students then this view makes perfect sense. If you view schools as academic institutions, whose main purpose is to educate children then it makes considerably less sense. Given that the main obstacles to educating children are those students who do not want to be educated and do not want others to be educated then this approach is likely to be on a par with asking the police to consult with muggers and asking doctors to consult with infections.

Of course, it depends on the school. I previously wrote about the questionnaire at Woodrow Wilson School that revealed that the students wanted stronger discipline, and the worst behaved students removed from their classes. However, Woodrow Wilson School had quite a strong middle class intake, supportive parents and strong standards of discipline in most of the primary schools the students had arrived from. Many students there were shocked when they arrived to see how out of control the students were, and new year 7s would take several months to adjust from the politeness and order of their primary schools to the rudeness and chaos of Woodrow Wilson. The opinions of most students, particularly the younger ones, reflected that they had an interest in learning that was being disrupted by the poor discipline and mixed ability classes.

By contrast, the intake to Stafford Grove School had no such bias towards learning. When they were consulted their opinions made it clear that what they wanted most were “fun” lessons (i.e. ones with no actual work in) and group work (i.e. sitting with a group of friends chatting). It is here that I realised that the Student Voice not only didn’t need to be listened to, it needed to be actively suppressed. Certain classes put forward their opinion quite forthrightly. The main elements of that opinion were:

  • We shouldn’t have to work if we don’t want to
  • Working is boring
  • Our conversations are more important than anything the teacher says
  • We can treat teachers how we like
  • How we do in our exams depends on the teacher not on us
  • Teachers shouldn’t expect us to follow the rules and any attempt to enforce those rules is unfair and personally motivated

These attitudes were all-pervasive and any effort to change them would be resisted with verbal abuse and even violence. This culture is fairly common in schools nowadays and it makes the very concept of consulting the students meaningless. Any survey of students at Stafford Grove will show a significant (but not universal) preference for lessons where work is optional and for teachers who are undemanding. I’m not speaking here from a position of being a particularly disliked teacher, I have a 4 out of 5 rating and positive comments on ratemyteacher from my time at Stafford Grove. However I soon discovered this had resulted from students who liked my taste in music (hard to believe) rather than anything related to teaching. Nobody’s going to win over students there by helping them learn.

The worst idea I’ve heard suggested as a way to increase the Student Voice is to let students play a part in interviewing and assessing job candidates. Perhaps there are schools where the students are so dedicated to learning that the ability to teach is the main criterion they would consider. This is not the case in any school I’ve taught at. I would leave on principle any interview where students were to have a say.

If you wouldn’t, then don’t be surprised if your feedback after the interview is something like this:

“Well I’m sorry to say that you didn’t get the job. Our interview panel raised a number of areas of concern. Firstly, you didn’t let them have fizzy drinks and the panel felt that’s so gay, man. Secondly, you support Everton and Everton are gay. Thirdly, your mum’s a ho and so’s your nan. Let us know if you’d like any more feedback or to ask any more question about the interview process. Thanks for coming to the school.”

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If Only They Didn’t Have to Learn

April 1, 2007

“Further, the idea ‘School’ is that of a personal transaction between a ‘teacher and a ‘learner’, the only indispensable equipment of ‘School’ is teachers: the current emphasis on apparatus of all sorts (not merely ‘teaching’ apparatus) is almost wholly destructive of ‘School’. A teacher is one in whom some part or aspect or passage of this inheritance is alive. He has something of which he is a master to impart (an ignorant teacher is a contradiction) and he has deliberated its worth and the manner in which he is to impart it to a learner whom he knows. He is himself the custodian of that ‘practice’ in which an inheritance of human understanding survives and is perpetually renewed in being imparted to newcomers. To teach is to bring it about that, somehow, something of worth intended by a teacher is learned, understood and remembered by a learner.“

Oakeshott (1972)

If I couldn’t teach, and by that I mean if I couldn’t explain my subject to students in a way that helps them to learn it, but I still wanted to be employed as a teacher then I’d have just a few excuses to fall back on.

I could argue that I shouldn’t be judged by whether my students know anything. After all being able to recite cold, dry facts doesn’t show any deeper level of understanding. My students might not know much, but perhaps they have a really deep conceptual understanding of the little they do know. Of course, understanding (unlike knowledge) is highly subjective so it’s hardly my fault that they can’t demonstrate that understanding. In fact it is unreasonable that the educational system in Britain dictates what should or shouldn’t be taught rather than leaving me to do whatever I like.

Then I could suggest that at no point should any students I teach be tested. Tests aren’t fair, they are just a snap-shot that will miss their true level of learning. If they must be assessed then the only assessment that counts should be one that I come up with myself based largely on my own judgements. After all, I’m a teacher, so I must have at least a couple of grade D A-levels and a degree from a former polytechnic, and therefore I must be far more able to assess ability than any examiner who doesn’t even know the students. Moreover students who do badly in tests are emotionally scarred by the experience and will become disillusioned with their education and have poor self-esteem. For their own emotional well-being we must stop them discovering how little they know. It’s the kind thing to do.

If I was in any danger of feeling guilty about having achieved nothing with my students then I could, of course, reassure myself that school isn’t about learning academic disciplines. It’s about the social experience. I may not have affected their ability to get into university or get a job, but I may well have taught them respect for something, and enthusiasm for something else. Just because I’m a teacher doesn’t mean I should be that concerned about teaching them, what matters is that I’ve inspired them. I’ve been their friend. I’ve talked to them about growing up, their problems at home and the football. It’s far more important that teenagers, particularly those from deprived backgrounds, have the experience of having a positive relationship with a middle class person, than that they get a good job or go into further or higher education. A friend of mine who teaches English was told, while training, that just speaking to kids using Received Pronunciation was “doing the job”.

If I wanted to achieve the next level of self-delusion I could then get quite irate and ideological at the politicians and parents who insist that we put so much effort into teaching students and assessing what they’ve learnt. I would also get upset at a system that allows parents to choose between schools and get their kids into the school where they have the best chance of learning. Moreover I could rail against a society which is so concerned with material things that we care more about whether school leavers can read, write and add up well enough to be employable rather than whether they feel good about themselves. I could even join a trade union which would back me in opposing all this emphasis on learning .

Now I might get to hear that there are other problems in the educational system. Poor behaviour, bullying or truancy might come to my attention. I might discover that lots of teachers who are good at their subject leave within in a year or two, and that for difficult subjects it’s hard to recruit anyone to teach them at all. However as a fully paid up educational radical I can declare that all these problems are a symptom of a system that hasn’t followed my priorities. In particular any problem related to the attitude of the students is down to reactionaries hassling them with all this academic stuff. Just as all of society’s problems will be solved after the Revolution, all of the problems of secondary education will be solved after we stop the tyranny of requiring the kids to learn.

Of course I can actually teach, and students learn in all of my classes. So as far as I’m concerned the fact that children are tested is to my distinct advantage. The pay-off from the effort I put in is that they have learnt and can be shown to have learnt. Every time I hear a colleague (or more likely an educationalist or union leader) complain about the pressures of testing or the unfairness of having to teach according to a curriculum, rather than according to whim, I do feel like asking “Do you actually teach?” or even “Do your students actually learn?” The problem in our schools is not that children are expected to learn, it’s that they aren’t expected to behave.

References:

Oakeshott, Micheal, Education: The Engagement and its Frustration, 1972

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