Archive for August, 2008

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Rewriting the Dictionary

August 30, 2008

“Well then I think we are all agreed as to what a teacake is. What’s the next word, Jessop?”

“It’s ‘teach’, sir. In our last edition we defined it as `give systematic information to (a person) or about (a subject or skill)’. However, we define a `teacher’ as ‘somebody who teaches, especially in a school’ and, as I was a teacher before I became a lexicographer’s assistant, I can’t help but notice that, as a teacher, I was never expected to give systematic information”

Were you not? Do teachers not do that these days?”

“Well, some do, sir, but generally speaking it’s frowned upon. Children aren’t really meant to be informed anymore, they should be finding things out for themselves and thinking about open ended questions. The general feeling is that they shouldn’t be bogged down with lots of useless knowledge that they could look up on the internet if they ever needed it.”

“Are they instructed in how to discover things for themselves? Could we say that teaching is `systematic instruction’?”

“Again, I’m sure some teachers do instruct but it is frowned upon. Students don’t really have to follow instructions any more. They are meant to be self-directed.”

If teachers aren’t meant to give information and aren’t able to make students find out information for themselves, then what are they meant to do, how are they meant to learn?”

The teacher is meant to entertain them.”

“But if a teacher can’t tell them entertaining information or make them do entertaining things, how is the teacher meant to entertain them?”

“Well by getting to know them, building a relationship.”

“This is all very vague, Jessop. They aren’t parenting the children, they aren’t instructing them. What sort of relationship is this?”

“One based on personality, I guess. Teachers are responsible for children’s emotional well-being”

“Emotional well-being?”

“Happiness. Teachers should be cheering children up. Making them smile.”

Oh, I see. Humorous entertainment, Jessop. So could we say that to teach is to be systematically entertaining in a humorous way?”

“Teachers aren’t really meant to be systematic anymore. They are meant to fit their teaching to individual pupils instead of following a rigid style.”

“Could we say teaching is being humorously entertaining about a subject, then?”

“Actually, the last I heard was that teachers were meant to see themselves as teaching children not subjects. Traditional subjects are seen as artificial.”

“I see. So to `teach’ is to ‘humorously entertain children’?”

I guess so, sir.

“It all seems very odd to me. But I guess it will have to do. What’s the next word?”

“It’s `teacher`”

“So, Jessop, can we say a teacher is `a person employed to humorously entertain children?’”

“I think so. Hang on, sir, just one slight problem.”

“Yes, Jessop?”

“We’ve already used that as our definition of `clown’.”

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A Helpful Video On Learning Styles

August 27, 2008

Just in case you need to provide some INSET at the start of next term about how children learn, you might want to look at this (apologies to those readers who can’t access youtube):

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Who Is To Blame?

August 24, 2008

The biggest, single policy mistake in education in the last twenty years, the one that has undermined everything else, has been the attempt to treat badly behaved children as if they had a right to be in classes with their victims. This has been labelled as “Inclusion” and is often presented as simply an extension of policies aimed at including the disabled in schools; to a true believer children with problems and children who cause problems are one and the same. As a result the very idea of Inclusion has become anathema to many mainstream classroom teachers. My point in this blog entry is simply to ask how this has happened and where the line was crossed from the worthy objective of including the disabled to the insane dogma of tolerating the badly behaved.

The starting point for inclusion, and the starting point for blame, is the Warnock Report from 1978. This report in many ways began the Inclusion agenda and led to the 1981 Education Act. However, it clearly stated that special schools would still be necessary for:

“those with severe emotional or behavioural disorders who have very great difficulty in forming relationships with others or whose behaviour is so extreme or unpredictable that it causes severe disruption in an ordinary school or inhibits the educational progress of other children;”

It is hard not to view this as a turning point, but it clearly isn’t where the idea that extreme poor behaviour was to be tolerated began. It is, however, when the bureaucracy associated with SEN became the mess it is today. For this reason Baroness Warnock has since disowned some of the recommendations of her own report.

A series of education acts throughout the 1980s and 90s continued the trend for greater inclusion. To many teachers the turning point seemed to be the 2001 Special Educational Needs and Disability Act. It is not uncommon to hear David Blunkett, the Education Secretary who saw the bill passed, blamed as the architect of inclusion, with his own blindness given as evidence that he must have been a whole hearted advocate of all forms of inclusion. However, like the 1996 Education Act before it, the 2001 Act contained the following exception to who should be “included” in a mainstream school:

“unless that is incompatible with … the provision of efficient education for other children.“

Section 316(3)

Just in case there was any confusion as to what this means the Explanatory Notes for the Act stated:

“In practice, incompatibility with the efficient education of others is likely to be where pupils present severe challenging behaviour that would significantly disrupt the learning of other pupils or place their safety at risk.”

Again, it seems that there is nothing here to explain why inclusion should require that schools tolerate poor behaviour. However, education in Britain is not run by legislation, nor is it run by government ministers. It is run by a bureaucracy and several months after the Act was passed Blunkett moved on and was replaced with Estelle Morris, a minister who later resigned, apparently on the grounds of her own incompetence. The guidance that went out from the bureaucracy on her watch (specifically the Special Educational Needs Code Of Practice from November 2001) contained no mention of the fact that poor behaviour was what was referred to in the efficient education clause. In fact it is treated throughout as a form of SEN and bad behaviour is simply grounds to review the help given to the student:

“Where a school identifies a pupil with a statement of special educational needs who is at serious risk of disaffection or exclusion, an interim or early review should be called. It will then be possible to consider the pupil’s changing needs and recommend amendments to the statement, as an alternative to the pupil being excluded.”

And so without any legislation it suddenly became official advice that badly behaved students simply needed adjustments of their SEN provision rather than to be removed from mainstream schools. The balance doesn’t seem to have changed much since then, despite a succession of different education secretaries, none of who have lasted very long or had much of an impact.

However, before I blame Estelle Morris and leave it at that, a major part of the problem of having children incapable of behaving in mainstream schools must stem from the advice given on exclusions which says:

“Other than in the most exceptional circumstances, schools should avoid permanently excluding pupils with statements. They should also make every effort to avoid excluding pupils who are being supported at School Action or School Action Plus under the Special Educational Needs Code of Practice, including those at School Action Plus who are being assessed for a statement. In most cases, the headteacher will be aware that the school is having difficulty managing a pupil’s behaviour well before the situation has escalated. Schools should try every practicable means to maintain the pupil in school, including seeking LA and other professional advice and support at School Action Plus or, where appropriate, asking the LA to consider carrying out a statutory assessment. For a pupil with a statement, the school should liaise with their LA about initiating an interim review of the pupil’s statement.”

Although this is quoted from the most recent version of the guidelines (from September 2007) the advice itself appears to go back to DfEE Circular 10/99. This time David Blunkett is responsible, although yet again it is guidance given from the education bureaucracy (this time in central government), not the law of the land, which is the problem.

References:

Warnock, H.M (chair), Report of the Committee of Enquiry into the Education of Handicapped Children and Young People, Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1978

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It

August 17, 2008

“Some teachers just have ‘it’. They go into a room and everybody is quiet, they open their mouths and all the pupils are listening and looking at them even if they are talking rubbish. They never have to shout or repeat instructions. It is nothing to do with experience or age, some of the young NQTs have it.”

Poster on TES website

When you train to be a teacher you are often told about the teachers who have It: a mystical, indefinable, personal quality that makes even the toughest classes behave perfectly as if by magic. In your first year of teaching the existence of It is reinforced some more when you hear about the teachers who are great at dealing with behaviour within your school. Sometimes you actually see students who disrupt your lesson being well-behaved for somebody else and it seems like the teacher must be a wizard or a hypnotist to have achieved this. Also you are told the story of the supply teacher the school had two years ago that no child would play up for because one disapproving look from her was enough to scare them straight. The case for the existence of It is seemingly undeniable for the first few years of teaching. Gradually, however, you begin to doubt.

Firstly, you start to see inside the classes of some of the teachers known for their great behaviour management. Not all of them, but a significant proportion of them, turn out to be appeasers. You learn that the reason Kieran “behaves” for them and not for you is actually because everything Kieran does is fine according to them. Their “great relationship” with Kieran, (and no doubt with the other badly behaved kids in the school) is based on spoiling him rotten and letting him get away with mistreatment of other kids. The behaviour and learning in their lessons is simply not what you would aspire to, and the only It they have is low expectations and the capacity to sound off about how well they are doing.

Secondly, you get more established yourself and you start to realise how much your own classroom management relies on expectations. If the kids think you are somebody they will have to behave for, then they will behave for you. This isn’t some mysterious It, this is simply reputation, and because of the fact that if you haven’t been driven out of the school previously the kids doubt that they are going to be able to drive you out now. Sometimes it does seem incredible that where once students would have argued with you over expectations, or accused you of being mad for asking them even to listen to you, they now think that you must have a point in what you are asking for and at the very least they are obliged to acknowledge those expectations even if they don’t always live up to them. Those teachers you saw, who genuinely could get good behaviour out of kids who would act up for you, stop being so mysterious in their methods. They are simply well-established and the longer you stay at the school the more confident you can be that you have joined their ranks.

This just leaves the case of the mythical supply teacher who could control year 11 boys with a disapproving glance.. If you work in tough schools for any length of time you get to meet a lot of supply teachers, some good, some bad, many terrible. The best ones, usually very experienced, can adopt suitable behaviour strategies quite fast and effectively and, not always without a fight, they do manage to establish themselves and their expectations. None of them actually manage the mythical feats of the unnamed supply teacher of legend. But “we had a supply teacher two years ago who was quite good” isn’t much of a story. “We has a supply teacher two years ago who performed incomprehensible wonders” is. Gradually you begin to realise that these stories are too fanciful to be solid evidence for the existence of It.

Now it is still the case that some teachers are more charismatic than others, some teachers teach more enjoyable lessons than others and some teachers manage behaviour better than others. In a school that’s fairly easy-going anyway the better staff might make classroom management look easy. In a tough school, though, the teacher with It simply doesn’t exist. Every teacher with well-behaved classes and enjoyable lessons has worked hard to get there, following up incidents, establishing routines, getting to know the students over several years. And if you could see their year 11 lesson last thing on a Friday, it would become quite clear that there are limits even to their talents and enthusiasm.

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A Personality Clash

August 10, 2008

Being an open-minded sort of person I can often see things from more than one perspective. For instance the following “personality clash” between myself and Lemuel can be seen quite differently depending on whether you are myself, Lemuel, or Miss Rush, Lemuel’s head of year, a Special Needs teacher who wasn’t actually in the room.

My Point Of View

In you come, Lemuel, I’m afraid you’re late. Please sit down. The work’s on the board.

“Yeah, yeah.”

*

We’re now 15 minutes into the lesson, can you please start the work, Lemuel?

“I’ve only just come in”

You’ve had five minutes now, some people have almost finished. Well done, girls. If you don’t start you are choosing to get a warning

*

Okay, Lemuel, I’m giving you your first warning. Can you stop drawing that picture of a car and get on with the work, please?

“How was I meant to know I was meant to do that?”

Please, just put that picture away, or I’ll have to give you your next warning

*

I’m afraid I’m going to have to give you your second warning, now, Lemuel. We’ve had twenty minutes and most people have finished. And I need to start the main part of the lesson. If I could just have quiet please everyone. Thank you very much. Today we are going to be doing …

“I never done nuffink. You gave me a second warning for nuffink.”

Please don’t talk while I’m talking to the class, Lemuel, I will have to give you your third warning and a detention.”

“This is gay”

I’m afraid you’ve chosen to get you third warning. Now please stop talking so I can start the lesson or you will be choosing to get sent out.

“I don’t care”.

Sshhh! If I can just have quiet again. Thank you very much everyone. Today we will be …

“I hate this fucking crap”.

I’m afraid you’ll have to leave the room now.

Lemuel’s Point Of View

In you come, Lemuel, just go over there and talk to you friends, we’ll do some work later.

“Yes, thank you.”

*

We’re now 15 minutes into the lesson, can you get on with your picture of a car please, Lemuel? I’ll tell you later if there’s going to be any work to do.

“Yes, sir”

Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Well done, girls. Blah, blah, blah

*

Blah, blah,blah, blah. Can you just finish off your picture of the car in the next five minutes or so and get on with the boring work, please?

“I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t realise there was any work.”

Please, just do your best drawing, and don’t worry about the work.

*

I’m afraid I’m going to have to give you your second warning, now, Lemuel. We’ve had twenty minutes and most people have finished. And I need to start the main part of the lesson. Don’t worry, Lemuel, I’ll just talk over your conversation. Today we are going to be doing …

“Sorry Sir I haven’t done anything, why did I get a second warning?”

Please don’t talk while I’m talking to the class, Lemuel, I will have to give you third warning and a detention.

“I’m not entirely sure this is fair, sir”

Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Now please stop talking or I will have to send you out for nothing.

“That seems fair, sir. I’ll be quiet now.”.

Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Blah,blah blah, blah, blah.

“Sir, can I ask a question”.

That’s it, I’m sending you out for absolutely no reason.

Miss Rush’s Point of View

In you come, you little bastard. Sit down, now. The work’s on the board and you’ll be in trouble if you don’t do it. I don’t care about all your special needs.

“Yes, sir, Mr Old. Please don’t hit me again, sir.”

*

We’re now 15 seconds into the lesson, hand over your work, boy!

“Here it is, Sir. And here’s my homework too. I spent three hours on it”

You call this homework? I could piss this in my sleep. Have three detentions.

*

Okay, you spaz, your picture of a car is crap. You draw like a girl. Have another detention.

“Please, sir, I can’t do another detention, my father’s seriously ill in hospital”

Good, I hope he dies soon. Now get on with copying out of a textbook or I’ll come to your house and molest your sister.

*

Here, have another ten detentions, Lemuel, you retard. We’ve had two minutes and most people have finished. Now I need you to listen to me just for the sake of it. Anybody who so much as breathes will get a detention. Terrible, you’re all thick. Now does anybody have any questions?

“Please, Mr Old, don’t hurt me but can I ask a question about the work?”

No. I don’t want questions from a spacker. Have another detention.

“Sorry, Mr Old, sir. I don’t know what I was thinking of. I think it’s because I haven’t eaten for a week.”

I’m afraid I’ve chosen to give you another detention. Now please stop snivelling, I don’t ever want to look at your weasel face again.”

“Sorry, Mr Old”.

Shut up, loser! God, I hate children. Anyway, today we will be discussing how Lemuel’s mother is a whore.

“I’m sorry, sir I’m a bit upset about this. She only died last month”

Piss off!”.

I suppose in a way, all these accounts of my personality clash with Lemuel are true to some extent. But in another, more literal way, only the first one is.

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Group-Work

August 3, 2008

It is always suggested that it would be a good idea if students took part in some activities during a lesson in pairs or groups. Obviously this is often unavoidable in drama and PE (assuming you count a sports team as “a group”). The reasons given are usually something along the lines of claiming that it teaches them important social skills such as cooperation, or that you learn better in a group due to being able to talk with your peers.

Of course, this is nonsense. If you want to learn how to cooperate effectively with others, then the last place you’d start is in a group of teenagers being made to do school work. This is like saying the best way to learn how to make pork sausages is by being imprisoned in a pig farm with a half-dozen rabbis. Putting together people who are neither experienced at doing something, or particularly inclined to want to do it, is not how you learn to do that something. Of course, it would be useful for a surly teenager to practice teamwork skills. Letting him or her join a team of adults who already know how to work in a team would be a great educational experience. Forcing them into a group of other surly teenagers and letting them fight it out amongst themselves over who is to blame for getting nothing done is less constructive.

The first problem is even getting them into groups. Many students will not sit near each other or talk to each other. The second problem is to get them to agree to do the task at hand. Getting them to work can be tricky at the best of times, but by putting them together you have ensured that if you are going to punish them for not working then you’d have to punish all of them equally. It’s a pretty safe bet that no teacher will risk antagonising the remaining good kids in that way, not least because it would be hard to justify that to parents. This is made worse by those who feel that they should refuse to work in protest at being in a group with somebody they don’t like. Finally, even if it is accepted that the group will carry out the work, it will not be accepted that they should all contribute. Teenagers are naturally hierarchical. It will be assumed that the dominant child should do everything if the activity looks enjoyable, or nothing if it looks like hard work. If the task involves writing you can see this in action. If Her Ladyship enjoys writing she grabs the pen. If His Lordship doesn’t enjoy it, he will grab it anyway, only to pass it to one of the serfs. Whichever way round it is, only one child will do most of the work. Far from teaching them how to cooperate, all that’s happened is that they’ve had yet another chance to develop their dysfunctional patterns of non-cooperation.

Now we may consider the more specific claim that they might learn more from this farce. It is a bit of a no-brainer that studying is generally done more effectively individually, but with significant exceptions. The suggestion that they might learn in groups or pairs is entirely based on the idea that discussion between children is inherently educational. Now, it is impossible to deny that discussing how to answer a question with somebody is often helpful. The strange idea here is that discussing it with somebody who knows roughly as little as you do, is going to be more educational than discussing it with the graduate who has been explaining for years, and is employed to explain it to you. This is, of course, another one of those dumbing down ideas that is based on the fantasy that children have nothing to learn from experts. Naturally, discussing something with an idiot is mainly a way of sharing misconceptions and mistakes. It is the exact opposite of how we learn best, which is from authoritative sources. This is, of course, why teachers spend half their lives telling kids not to talk, not to cooperate, and not to pay attention to each others’ answers. It is also why teachers, even after all these years of “knit-your-own-yoghurt” methods are still called “teachers” and not “facilitators” or “learning consultants”.

However, even by making this argument I am naively assuming that if you put children together in a group and tell them to talk about something, they will. Why on earth would they do that? No matter what your subject, no matter how exciting, there are always going to be a hundred and one other things that are more interesting to talk about. With a large class, and normal secondary school age children, no teacher can control the direction of seven or eight simultaneous conversations. Teachers have a job on their hands at the best of times encouraging students to work rather than chat, it becomes impossible to do when the work itself involves chatting. Like so many other fashionable educational ideas, group-work is based on the belief that every child is basically the sort of willing, obedient individual our school system so effectively marginalises when they do exist, rather than the uncooperative chav that they are, in practice, forced to become in order to survive.

As ever in teaching, these sorts of patterns of behaviour aren’t just instinctive, they will have been learned over many years of being made to work in groups by idiot teachers, who didn’t really care about learning, trying and failing to get some group-work done. They will have already learnt that group-work is effectively an extension of breaktime, in which you get to chat as much as you like and the teacher occasionally comes round and asks why nothing has been done (but not too often because none of the other groups will have done anything either, and the teacher will have spent five minutes trying to calm down the group whose members were trying to kill each other or the child that had a tantrum the moment they discovered who they would be working with). No teacher achieves anything much in group-work outside those areas mentioned earlier where they have had to get used to cooperating, like in drama or playing team sports. Even then you can see problems developing: kids will fight over who is to be in their group, and only experience enables the teachers of those subjects to manage the situation. Most (but not all) teachers dread getting a cover in those subjects.

As for every other subject, the pressure is always there to do get children to work in groups or pairs, for reasons of variety as much as anything else. As a conscientious professional who is full of confidence in anything that’s recommended by people who don’t even teach anymore, I incorporate some kind of group-work into all of my lessons. Those parts of the lesson where they have to sit in silence and listen to me, I consider to be a form of group-work. What’s particularly good about this type of group-work it is that they don’t even have to sit with their groups, or know who else is in their group, in order to do it. Another possibility is simply to ensure that all of your group-work is done in groups of one.

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