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With a Little Help from my Friends

April 23, 2009

I met up with a few old friends recently.

One of them is a councillor with responsibility for education (thankfully not “children’s services”) for a medium size unitary authority. He told me that he thought his authority was doing well, at least according to exam results. I pointed out that results cannot really be compared over time due to changes in exams and he accepted that it was the figures relative to other schools that showed progress had been made. He was also quite keen to point out that there were various groups, such as those responsible for The Cambridge Primary Review who were opposed to testing even though it was the only way to reliably judge whether kids are learning or not. I told him my view that schools were massively failing due to poorly thought out aims, such as inclusion, and idiotic patronising initiatives from both government and from private companies selling snake oil.

He agreed that SEN provision was a mess, but said that it all came down to money; Special Schools cost more. With regard to initiatives telling teachers how to teach, he asked if I was claiming teachers should have more autonomy, because if so then I needed to realise how terrible a lot of teachers were. I pointed out that my real issue was that the initiatives were nonsense. The people who implement initiatives are not any more competent, and certainly not better educated, than ordinary classroom teachers. There are classroom teachers out there with PhDs in psychology being told to implement “expert” ideas that actually contradict everything psychologists know about learning. He suggested academic qualifications were no guarantee of teaching ability. I pointed out that they normally suggest at least some ability to identify bullshit.

Later I met up with a friend who is training to be an accountant and had just been to a training course alongside a number of people who were (or were training to be) “consultants”. He told me that even in business they are expected to start their training with nonsense about learning styles and groupwork. When he looked up some of the ideas he’d encountered online he had noticed that even Wikipedia is wising up to this nonsense. “Learning styles” and the “Belbin Team Inventory” can easily be found to have been widely criticised by those who have researched them. Could it be that school managers might now have no excuse for not simply accepting such fads uncritically?

My friend also told me that a lot of the consultants he met were engaged in work in Further Education. A quick search for “further education consultants uk” on Google reveals that this is indeed a growth industry. Perhaps it’s just me, but when any part of the public sector is spending a fortune on consultants to tell them what to I start to worry that something is going wrong. Perhaps, people who read this who work in FE can reassure me?

Finally, I met up with an old school friend.

He said:

“Stop talking about your work all the time”.

Fair comment really.

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9 comments

  1. If he employs a lot of teachers who are terrible, why hasn’t he sacked them?

    If he knows they are terrible and has done not sacked them, then he should be sacked, without further ado.

    The taxpaying public are fed up with public-sector incompetents blaming the shortcomings of other public-sector incompetents for the failings of the Education system, the Health system, the Justice system, etc etc.


  2. Councils have no power to sack teachers. They don’t even employ them directly.


  3. Thank you, teachingbattleground, I didn’t know that.

    Therefore, I think, para (2) applies.


  4. What?


  5. I work in FE and you have no chance, I suspect it’s worse than school level because we only get 30 days holiday and work 9-5 so there is more time to trap us in pointless training.
    Also I have attended a fair few training session and between myself and my fellow teachers we concluded we have never been on a useful training session. Now we do five days training a year, and there is 6 of us. So therefore that is 30 days spent on utterly useless, and incredibly expensive time wasting.
    Secondly I recieved a pack from the government, the FSA to be exact, informing me that they want 25% of all colleges to teach financial literacy, budgeting etc. by 2011. The pack neatly sets out all the goals of the government and some case study saying college X found it very useful. This is a sound idea except… we have been teaching this since I started, they got together a group of experts to tell us this and in their ‘pack’ there isn’t a single resource you can actually use in the class.
    Finally learning styles is still going strong, in fact the management of the bigest FE college in the country demand we do a learning styles with every student, and we publish their results in their ILP and we use it in our lessons. I used to not bother doing it in the hope they would pull me up and I could shoot them down, but since they are so bad at managing they haven’t managed this so now I lead my students on the merry dance of the learning styles… at least I get a chance to tell them its bollocks.


  6. “He suggested academic qualifications were no guarantee of teaching ability. I pointed out that they normally suggest at least some ability to identify bullshit.”

    You posted a link to a D.T. Willingham article on Critical Thinking in a previous post.
    In big type on the second page there is the quote(emphasis added by me): “Critical thinking is not a set of skills that can be deployed at any time, in any context. It is a type of thought that even 3-year-olds canengage in—and even trained scientists can fail in.”

    Please examine, for example, the actions of people who have won Nobel Prizes after their win. I recall that one entertained the delusion that Vitamin C was a panacea for years. This is although VitC is water soluble and excess passes straight out.


  7. Please examine, for example, the actions of people who have won Nobel Prizes after their win. I recall that one entertained the delusion that Vitamin C was a panacea for years. This is although VitC is water soluble and excess passes straight out.

    I assume you mean Linus Pauling.

    I make no claim that the highly educated don’t believe silly things. I just believe they are better able to question other people’s silly ideas. Even that might be overstating it, but you can’t get very far in academia without being able to look up a reference (and to know why it is important to be able to do so) and yet things like BLP seem to rely on an audience who would not even expect a reference to be provided for, say, a claim about what scientists say.


    • “…but you can’t get very far in academia without being able to look up a reference (and to know why it is important to be able to do so)…”

      Looking up references does not necessarily mean evaluating evidence based on the credibility of the sources, and then comparing competing claims based on various factors (such as reliability and validity of findings, quality of argument, and respectability and authority of the author).

      Instead it could mean mostly looking for references that support you and assigning lesser importance to those that don’t (confirmation bias), and allowing your reference group to unduly sway your thinking. There are fads and fashions in academia as well as in teaching: Bryan Magee writes about the language fad of post-war Oxford philosophy in his excellent Confessions of a Philosopher.

      Some psychologists believe that the brain has not evolved to think critically, but instead to believe. It has certain functional advantages, such as promoting group cohesion:
      http://www.csicop.org/si/9505/belief.html
      http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2006/apr/11/religion.books

      To go back to the example you originally brought up, Dan Willingham does NOT support the idea that academic training automatically leads to an ability to be skeptical, think critically, think evaluatively, or whatever else you want to call it. He does, as you know, say a 3-year-old can do it better than a trained scientist.


      • I have not claimed that academic training “automatically leads to an ability to be skeptical, think critically, think evaluatively, or whatever else you want to call it”.

        I have claimed it assists with the ability to identify bullshit. I have refined this point further by pointing out that I mean other people’s unsupported bullshit. I could refine the point even further and say I mean other people’s unsupported pseudo-academic bullshit.

        Is it really unreasonable to suggest that greater educational qualifications at least have something to do with being able to distinguish between established research and unsupported assertion? I’m not suggesting that only the educated can detect bullshit, or that there aren’t varieties of bullshit that the educated fall for, but I don’t think it is too unreasonable to suggest that somebody educated to a high level will have picked up some ability to identify, say, articles in peer-reviewed journals by academics. Nor is it unreasonable to suggest that this would be useful when dealing with a pamphlet whose assertions are attributed to anonymous scientists.



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