Archive for March, 2009

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What if Senior Managers Told the Truth?

March 28, 2009

Good morning.

Before we start our first INSET session today I am going to waste ten or fifteen minutes with introductory remarks. This is because nobody else wanted to do this and we had some time to fill this morning. To begin with I’d like to start by saying that I am very happy about much of what I have seen happening at the school this term. I am particularly happy about my pay-rise and my fact-finding trip to study teaching methods in the Bahamas. I have been less happy to see that people have noticed that no child ever does a detention. I am also concerned that the biscuits at governors’ meetings have changed from bourbons to custard creams.

Our main focus for INSET today will be teaching and learning. By “teaching and learning” I mean a bunch of ridiculous gimmicks that nobody sees the point of or actually has time to do but which we are convinced OFSTED will be looking for.

Firstly, I will go through the schedule for today, even though nobody really cares about any of it except when lunch is and how early we can go home.

Our first session will be with our least stupid assistant head. He will drone on about using data. During this session some graphs will be shown to suggest that we aren’t doing too badly, and to suggest some targets that will never be met. It will be heavily implied that if the targets aren’t met then it will be your fault.

Our next session will be about some nonsense known only by its initials. This will be led by an incompetent middle manager who we had to promote out of harm’s way. You will expected to incorporate what you learn into your lesson plans for the next six months, when it will be replaced by some other initiative with a different set of initials.

After this we will break for tea and coffee. We will expect you to hang around outside the hall complaining about how bored you are, discussing what was the silliest INSET task you ever did, and speculating as to whether we will finish early.

Then we will send you to your departments to carry out some mind-numbing task vaguely related to the waffle you have heard. In case you ignore the instructions and try and do something useful instead we will insist you report back after lunch. Whichever member of your department is least able to avoid it will be expected to present something to the rest of the staff. We don’t care what they say, so long as the whole session takes up at least 45 minutes.

In our final activity, we will all write platitudes about what kind of learners we want our school to produce and our most stupid assistant head will read them out. Nobody will suggest we want them to be “clever” or “academic”. Finally I will return from my office to announce what a successful day it has been.

Before we begin I’d just like to say a few words about the members of staff who are leaving today. You’re all bastards. Thank you.

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Kindness and Justice

March 21, 2009

“It is true that there is a thing crudely called charity, which means charity to the deserving poor; but charity to the deserving is not charity at all, but justice.”

Chesterton (1905)

It always fascinates me that those who express disapproval of punishment take such a self-righteous tone. To me a belief in desert, and with it a belief in rewards and punishment, is an integral part of believing in right and wrong. If good deeds did not deserve to be rewarded, and bad deeds did not deserve to be punished, then it would be very doubtful whether “good” or “bad” would have any meaning at all. So why would somebody who denies desert, see themselves as occupying the moral high-ground, rather than denying the existence of any moral highground?

My theory is that it comes down to different virtues, in particular: being kind and being just. On the surface there is a similarity. Both kindness and justice require a concern for the worst off, and a belief in either might lead one to help others, particularly those who are suffering. However, there is a major difference. If you help others out of kindness you are helping because you feel like it. Ultimately it is about you. If you help others in the interests of justice, you help them because they deserve to be helped. It is about them. Kindness, while still a virtue, is limited by the extent of your compassion. Justice can only reach a limit by being satisfied. Acts of kindness serve our desire to do good, acts of justice serve goodness itself. Kindness seeks to order our actions; justice seeks to order the universe.

In practice the two are very different. Kindness suggests that we harm nobody, while justice requires the guilty are punished. Kindness might endorse feeding the starving; justice asks why they are starving in the first place and demands we do something about it. Kindness asks what we can afford to give; justice asks if there is anything we deserve to keep. Kindness can be given to anybody, even to cats and dogs; justice can only be given to the wronged. When you are praised for an act of kindness it is natural to say “that was the least I could do”. That is the most accurate description of kindness. We all, to some degree, live our lives in a kind way. None of us, to any degree, live our lives in a just way. It would take a deliberate effort never to make a kind action. It takes a deliberate effort ever to make a just action. If we listened to justice we might give away all we own to those who deserve it more. If we listened to justice we might have to give up control of our lives for the benefit of others. If we listened to justice we might have to get ourselves killed, by challenging those with the power. A little bit of kindness here or there is far, far easier.

Now, I don’t mean to dismiss kindness. In our day-to-day lives kindness improves the lives of those around us, particularly when it is born of love. In fact, very little else, does more to improve the lives of our friends, families, pets or acquaintances. It is good to be kind, and it is good that it is within our reach. But it is a personal quality. We can live kind lives; we can’t build kind institutions. We may have a kind mother, a kind friend or even a kind boss. We don’t shop in kind supermarkets, get educated in kind schools or live under kind laws. Even those institutions, such as charities, churches and families that might consider the practice of kindness to be part of their purpose would soon fall apart if that kindness was unconstrained. A charity which attempted to serve all good causes would soon cease to function. A church which embraced sin as much as sanctity would cease to be a church. A family into which everybody was adopted would cease to be a family. Justice, however, is something we can strive for in institutions. In fact this is about the only place we get to serve justice. Where we have power and authority over others, when we are making decisions between the conflicting interests of others, we are able to make decisions that aren’t about ourselves. A judge can be just. A politician can be just. A teacher can be just.

It is at this point we can turn to education. An education system can serve justice. It can seek to ensure that all receive what they are entitled to. It can give opportunities to those who lack them. It can provide education to the poor. It can judge the merits of different parts of the curriculum, and pass on a valuable heritage. It can make sure that nobody profits from harming the chances of others, and can see that children are governed in a fair manner and protected from each other. Unfortunately, these are not the aspirations of our education system. Kindness has taken over. No longer are children to be given greater opportunities or a chance to improve themselves. They are encouraged to feel good about themselves as they are now and their situation as it is now. No longer is hard work to be inflicted on the lazy; that would be cruel. The difficult choices involved in being just are to be replaced with the conviction that every problem could be solved if only everybody could be a little kinder. Punishment is rejected in favour of lavishing kindness on the guilty, even at the expense of their victims. Nobody is to be given what they deserve, when they can be given what seems nice. Even the word “education” is being sidelined, and replaced with words that suggest that schools are there simply to look after children not to improve them. An education system that was just in its actions would do far more for more children than one which simply allows the chattering classes to foist their kindness on the young. However, this is not on the horizon. Worse, if you dare cry out for justice, then you will be branded as uncaring. We live in a topsy-turvy world where it doesn’t matter how much harm you do as long as you appear to care about the people you are harming.

Reference:

Chesterton, G.K., Heretics, 1905

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Snake Oil

March 14, 2009

There are a lot of people out there making money from selling schools “big ideas”. Unfortunately, these are never ideas that involve sorting out discipline and reintroducing academic standards. They are more likely to be about “teaching and learning” and in the first instance involve lots of extra meetings and then often fade into nothing. Sometimes they are actually followed for a few years before they fade away.

After a while you begin to notice when your latest initiative is snake oil. There are distinctive features in anything that is designed to convince school managers, and other credulous teachers, to part with money in the hope of miraculous results, rather than to actually do any good.

The latest initiative to come my way is called “Building Learning Power”, a scheme for encouraging students to become better learners. Having read the manual – Claxton (2002) - I have noticed a number of the familiar features. The following are the signs that seem to apply to all educational snake oil:

Publications for People who Don’t Read Books

It is no good writing an academic treatise if you want people to part with cash. The BLP manual is glossy, brightly coloured, and set out like a cross between a gossip magazine and an Argos catalogue. The main body of text mainly appears on alternate pages, with quotations, diagrams and anecdotes filling in the gaps. Both this, and the anecdotal style of writing, makes it quite clear that this isn’t aimed at the sort of person who learns by reading books or journals. Or to put it another way, it is not aimed at the well-educated.

Jargon

Nothing decorates bullshit better than a new vocabulary and mindless slogans. In the BLP manual we find section headings such as “Getting Learning Fit”, “The Four R’s of Learning Power”, “Meta-Learning”, “Reciprocity”, “WILF and TIB” and “The learning power palette”. In the text we have even worse examples. We are to develop “learning muscles”; headteachers are to become “head learners” and in one example we are told about a teacher who now calls her classroom “the mind gym”.

Claims to Scientific and Academic Credibility

BLP scores highly here, with the author being described as “Professor Guy Claxton”. However, no doubt for the benefit of anyone aware how little a position in an education department of an English university is actually worth in academic terms, the book makes every additional effort to claim the credibility it doesn’t deserve. Hence we are told BLP is based on “solid science” and that “BLP is based on an extensive body of research. The new sciences of brain and mind are revealing just how learnable learning is”. Claims are made about research, yet strangely there is no direct reference to the publication the research was published in and no mention of whether the results of the research have been disputed.

Contempt for Academic Education and Expertise

Although snake oil salesman are the first to trumpet their own qualifications, it would be self-defeating to suggest that qualifications are particularly valuable in the present age, or that experts offer the best advice. After all, in a school the teachers most qualified to comment, (e.g those with expertise in relevant fields such as psychology or philosophy, and those who get the best results) might be the first to dismiss the latest fad. The usual line is to stress uncertainty about the future and distrust of what is already known. Inevitably, BLP has to avoid focussing on qualifications, saying “to thrive in the twenty-first century, it is not enough to leave school with a clutch of examination certificates” and those who experience BLP will “take away from school not just a few certificates, but greater confidence, competence and curiosity to face the uncertainties that life will surely throw at them”. Just in case the anti-achievement message isn’t actually clear enough, we are told (incredibly): “Research tells us … High achievers are not necessarily good real-life learners.”

As for experts and their academic knowledge it is suggested that: “Just because Howard Gardner is a Professor at Harvard, it doesn’t mean that there are only seven forms of intelligence in this part of the world. Maybe Year 11 at St Edmund’s can come up with another one.” Apparently, we should spread a similar view of expertise to students, telling them the Theory Of Evolution “… is one way of looking at the situation (and Muslims or biochemists or creationists have a different view)”. Academic knowledge is not too be valued highly; it is bad that in education “The emphasis has remained firmly on the content to be learnt”. As ever the first step to improving learning is to devalue the difficult bits. In the brave new world that BLP is aiming to equip us for “Algebra and parts of speech can seem a little beside the point”. Just as inevitably, this is for the sake of the children’s happiness: “We want them to be able to make successful relationships, to be capable of being (and disposed to be) loving and kind … We want them to live, as much as they can, without fear or insecurity. We would like them to be happy. … Education has to take a step back”.

Statements of the Obvious

In the absence of a clear evidence base, it is usual for the peddlers of drivel to spend plenty of time pointing out the obvious. BLP is no exception, and many of their insights into what makes a good learner will provoke nothing more that the words: “Tell me something I don’t know”. Far more time is spent explaining what would be good, no matter how obvious, than suggesting how to achieve it. That said the “No Shit, Sherlock”-award has to go to this line from the BLP book “Research shows, for example, that people who can make a reasonable estimate of how long a task will take are more likely to finish on time …”

Failure to Confront the Discipline Crisis

Anyone in education with even half a brain knows that the collapse of civilised behaviour in our secondary schools is the main obstacle to children learning. This is not a message Senior Managers are willing to buy into and so it will not appear in the rubbish marketed to managers. Most references to behaviour will be to suggest that it results from a failure to realise the wisdom of the latest fad. As well as many comments which suggest this, BLP actually goes further and suggests students should misbehave if they are not taught in the way BLP suggests: “More adventurous teachers can [even] encourage their students … to refuse to undertake an activity till they know what the purpose and the value are.”

The Usual Nonsense

Invariably the latest piece of rubbish bears a strong resemblance to the last. And so “project work”, “problem-solving”, “collaboration” and “circle-time” pop up like toxic pennies. For some reason new methods of teaching never seem to involve setting work from a textbook, giving a lecture, getting kids to copy notes off of the board or punishing heavily those who won’t do what they are told.

One of these days I should try and market my own revolutionary teaching method. I will call it “The Teacher As Expert” and it will be based on the brilliant scientific insight that kids learn more if they shut up and listen to somebody who knows what they are talking about.

References:

Claxton, Guy, Building Learning Power, TLO, 2002

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Corporal Punishment

March 8, 2009

The trouble with discussing corporal punishment in schools is that there are very few coherent moral principles that can be applied, specifically, to corporal punishment, as opposed to punishment in general. Ultimately it is almost a matter of aesthetics rather than ethics and we simply ask: “how pleasing, or displeasing, is the idea of teachers inflicting physical pain on students?” I tend towards the idea that corporal punishment does not fit with my idealised view of teachers as civilised academics imparting the fruits of their expertise, not as substitute parents. Routinely making physical contact with the young is normal in parents but should not be normal in academics; it is just a bit too familiar for me. For that reason I do not endorse the reintroduction of corporal punishment, or at least I’d like to see all schools using other sanctions effectively before we consider adding another sanction.

However, despite my opposition to corporal punishment, when I go anywhere near this issue I usually end up inciting the aggression of opponents of physical punishments, or rather those opponents who are Punishment Puritans: hysterical appeasers of the badly behaved convinced that everyone who disagrees with them about corporal punishment is some form of barbarian or primitive. (For instance see some of the posts here, where one teacher suggests that surveys about corporal punishment “should be used to find out who these evil perverts are then they should be ‘outed’ and humiliated”). I guess I find this sort of display objectionable because my opposition to corporal punishment is entirely based around my personal tastes regarding how teachers should be. I have absolutely no problem with parents or the police using corporal punishment on children. I don’t have any time at all for the main arguments used against corporal punishment, many of which are actually arguments against all punishment, and I find the sanctimonious rhetoric used by the Punishment Puritans deeply insulting to my intelligence.

Firstly, it is argued that it is wrong in principle to harm students. Obviously it is never simply phrased like that. Hyperbole is almost compulsory. Words like “child abuse” or “torture” are thrown around as if every teacher before 1987 was a cross between Josef Mengele and Fred West. Of course, this argument is worthless. Punishments are meant to be unpleasant, and so in that sense are always harmful and to suggest that children must never experience the unpleasant, no matter how much they deserve to, is to dismiss the possibility of justice. Punishment, even corporal punishment, is not, however, harmful in the sense of being against the child’s interests in the long term. It is harmful only in the sense that hard work, an inoculation or physical exercise is harmful. It is harmful only from the point of view of someone who thinks that it does one harm to experience anything other than immediate unremitting pleasure, regardless of the consequences. This is “harm” only to those who believe that children should be encouraged to be hedonists.

The next objection is usually the pacifist objection: corporal punishment is wrong because it is violence. Now it is quite clear that a large part of the British middle class have an attitude to violence that is akin to the Victorian attitude to sex. They refuse to acknowledge that it is happening, that it is ever necessary, or that it could ever be a good thing. I suppose this position is consistent with an extreme pacifism. There are people who have such intense pacifist convictions that if they had been around sixty-five years ago they would have suggested welcoming Nazi invaders and preached to Jews about how “passive resistance” was the best response to being exterminated. Of course, such people are fairly rare and so we instead have the self-righteous middle class version of pacifism. This involves pretending that all violence is unnecessary and unusual simply because it isn’t required at middle class dinner parties. This often leads to bizarre delusions about how the world operates. I have encountered people who claim that “in real life” (as opposed to school life) verbal abuse isn’t punished with violence; presumably they don’t get out much and have never gone to a football match or any bar that doesn’t mainly serve wine. Others have told me that the police don’t use violence; they simply “restrain” people where necessary, leaving me to wonder why they sometimes have batons, attack dogs and guns. Who knows what the chattering class pacifist thinks the armed forces are for? The fact is that our quality of life is protected by the willingness of people, particularly the armed forces and the police, to use violence. Prudishness can make one pretend that this sort of thing only happens among the swinish multitudes, while the middle-class professional can wash their hands of it all, but this is simple hypocrisy. No society can exist without some level of violence, or threat of violence, being used to keep order. Beyond that there is something frankly absurd about considering all “violence” as equally concerning. It reminds me of this:

The most ridiculous objection, one that again could be used against all punishment, is that corporal punishment didn’t work. Usually this is amplified by the claim that students would still behave badly when corporal punishment existed, or that some students would continue to misbehave after being subjected to corporal punishment. Of course, this is to return to the earlier discussion of the purposes of punishment. If the purpose of punishment is to make children into saints, or to deter all misbehaviour, then, of course, corporal punishment did not work. However, by this logic, every other punishment or any other method of dealing with poor behaviour also doesn’t work. Nothing we do can change human nature. Punishment serves not to eliminate sin but to increase justice by inflicting a penalty on those who deserve it. It is obvious that corporal punishment worked in this respect. Unless it didn’t actually punish at all then it would work by definition. Unless all children were completely indifferent to physical punishment, seeing it as a reward or something they felt completely neutral about receiving, then of course it worked. As well as this, given the extent to which corporal punishment has been used in the past and is still used in other countries it would only be the most arrogant of ideologues who could ever believe that it is never effective. The claim is all the more ridiculous when we consider how corporal punishment was abolished. It was not gradually rejected, a school at a time, due to its ineffectiveness. It was outlawed by the Government against the wishes of the majority of teachers and parents because it was creating legal difficulties because of how widespread it was. If it was ineffective, it would not have taken an act of parliament to stop its use. It had to be banned because it was effective, not because it was ineffective. No Government has ever showed any desire in general to outlaw the “ineffective” in our schools.

Finally the ad hominem usually appears at some point in this discussion. Sometimes it is connected with the arguments that have already appeared. Any one who advocates, or is not sufficiently indignant about, corporal punishment, is condemned as a child abuser, a violent brute or simply too unintelligent to understand that corporal punishment never worked. Sometimes the accusations are aimed directly at teachers who have used corporal punishment. It is claimed they were motivated by sadism or sexual perversion. No doubt there are some issues here, but they are issues about which parts of the body are appropriate to be struck, and whether men should be teaching teenage girls in the first place. A general claim about perversion associated with corporal punishment is not terribly credible on an empirical level, simply because of the extent to which corporal punishment has been and is used. (What proportion of the teaching profession in certain eras and countries are meant to have been perverted?) The other point to make here is that to punish children by methods that are only used on children, can never be perverted. It can be perverted to treat children like they were adults, which is why paedophiles have opposed laws that seek to distinguish between children and adults on grounds of age. It can be perverted to treat adults like they were children; some adults have a predilection for being caned by other adults or by being otherwise treated as a child. There is, however, no perversion in treating children like they were children.

There is one final argument. Sometimes the Punishment Puritans declare that “if they brought back the cane, then I would have no choice but to quit teaching”. It is at this point that I start to think that maybe bringing back the cane would be for the best after all.

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Students and Detentions

March 1, 2009

I have explained before about how detentions can be badly organised to the point of being worthless. I was once in a position to rectify this within the department where I worked. I put a lot of time into increasing the rate of attendance at department detentions from about 50% to 90%.

It led to conversations like this with students:

“Sir, how can I have a detention today? I did it on Monday.”

“No, the detention you did on Monday was for not doing your homework. Today’s detention is for sulking and refusing to work in the lesson where you were given the detention for not doing the homework.”

“But I’ve done a detention.”

“Yes, I just said that.”

“So I don’t have to do it today?”

“Yes, you do.”

“But I’ve done it.”

“No, that was a different detention.”

“What?”

“As I said, you have two detentions. One for homework. One for behaviour.”

“And I’ve got to do both of them?”

“Yes.”

“That’s not fair”

Or even worse, for students who dared to get two detentions for the same thing:

“Sir, I’ve got a detention for not doing the homework but I did it last week.”

“That was a different detention.”

“But it says it’s for not doing the homework.”

“But I did the detention for not doing homework last week.”

“Yes, but you have two detentions for not doing homework.”

“Was there homework this week?”

“Not yet. Your detention is for not doing last week’s homework.”

“But I did that detention last week.”

“No, last week’s detention was for not doing the previous week’s homework.”

“There were two homeworks?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t remember having two homeworks.”

“You did. They were both on worksheets that have been stapled into your book.”

“And I had to do both of them?”

“Yes. One last week, one the week before.”

“So, do I have to do the detention today?”

It became abundantly clear that where teachers had been left to organise their own detentions then they had struggled to follow up students who owed more than one detention. To the students it had long been established that once you owed one detention you couldn’t possibly be expected to do any more. The effect on discipline was noticeable, any child given a detention would behave badly for the rest of the lesson, and often lessons afterwards, simply because they thought they were immune to further punishment and wanted to object to the punishment they had already received. It made detentions for things like homework very inadvisable and any child who had a detention became a ticking timebomb, just waiting to explode into a further display of poor behaviour.

While I was at the Metropolitan School I was given an opportunity to research how students felt about detentions. As I have no doubt mentioned before the school operated a system of warnings. The first two warnings were written on the board and rubbed off at the end of the lesson. The third warning resulted in a detention, and the fourth resulted in the students being sent out of the classroom. My research showed that most students accepted that they deserved their first warning. Fewer students accepted that they deserved their second warning. No students at all ever accepted that they deserved their detention. Warnings were given on the same grounds whether they were first, second or third and so a third warning should have been no more controversial than a first. However, the fact was that despite a clear system that was meant to be in operation across the school students lacked the maturity to ever accept that they could have brought a detention on themselves.

What both of these examples illustrate is the extent to which students do not see punishments as something necessary or deserved, no matter how clear-cut the individual case is. My opinion is that this is because we have simply lost any meaningful concept of desert in our schools. After all, if it is normal for difficult children to be spoilt, sent on trips, and allowed to dominate classrooms, why would any child connect their own lapses in behaviour to a deserved punishment?

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