Archive for the ‘Commentary’ Category


Authentic Concern Versus Emotional Correctness

November 19, 2014

I have talked recently (see “Witch-hunt“) about personal attacks and bad arguments. It dawned on me that I am often subject to two contradictory attacks. The first is that, by suggesting we listen to reason, look at evidence or attend to matters of factual accuracy, I am ignoring the emotional side of things. In effect, that I am a desiccated calculating machine, dryly weighing everything up without any feeling for what’s at stake.


However, at the same time, whenever I have referred to, say, feeling angry about children’s behaviour or disgusted at somebody’s unwise actions, I get attacked for hostility, intimidation or hatred.

Screenshot 2014-11-19 at 19.50.16

I used to get this sort of thing all the time. Now it’s more often aimed at new bloggers, like “Quirky Teacher”.




Screenshot 2014-11-19 at 19.58.47

An example of me showing empathy and emotion. Went down really well, as you can see.


What has gradually occurred to me is that this sort of thing is reminiscent of the “bisected teacher” phenomena that I described here. Those who sit in judgement will condemn teachers both for their feelings and their lack of feelings. This is because it is not emotion, or its lack, that is actually at issue. It is a willingness to comply only with the approved display of emotions. It is not about emotion, but about emotional correctness. It is the right sort of show of concern, not the genuine feeling of concern. Genuine emotions are, by contrast, messy and sometimes difficult to deal with. And often these are to be condemned.

Thinking about some of the ways teachers are supposed to express their concern and fondness for students in schools. The more sincere the feeling, or the more it treats children with some of the respect due to adults, the less it seems to be approved:

Authentic Concern

The following ways of displaying concern or fondness for your students are often not approved of:

  1. Being angry, particularly shouting, when their learning is disrupted or they are otherwise harmed by their peers;
  2. Expressing anger about disruptive or dangerous students to colleagues;
  3. Suggesting it is important for them to be high-achieving, academically;
  4. Being visibly disappointed when they fail or misbehave;
  5. Expression opposition to school policies that are not in their interests;
  6. Expecting them to work hard and follow rules;
  7. Designing lessons only for the sake of their learning;
  8. Respecting their privacy by letting them keep feelings and opinions to themselves;
  9. Letting them work alone rather than with students they don’t get on with;
  10. Objecting to the “inclusion” of students whose behaviour endangers and upsets other students;
  11. Punishing, as firmly as possible, those whose behaviour harms the interests of your students;
  12. Being honest to them, particularly regarding the consequences of their actions and the effect they are having on others.

“Emotional Correctness”

The following behaviours, all either empty or potentially harmful, are very often encouraged as showing how much you care and like children:

  1. Letting them off of punishments, or not enforcing rules;
  2. Giving rewards that are not deserved;
  3. Deliberately trying to get them to like you, perhaps by making childish jokes;
  4. Lecturing colleagues for having the wrong attitude to children;
  5. Making lessons entertaining or relevant to what they are already interested in;
  6. Declaring how much you like them at every opportunity;
  7. Sympathising with their dislikes of particular subjects;
  8. Pretending to be happy in lessons;
  9. Lying to them to motivate them;
  10. Lowering expectations for particular individuals on the basis that you understand them and their needs;
  11. Pretending to be interested in latest popular culture phenomena;
  12. Refusing to let them know how they are doing relative to each other or to where they should be.

Perhaps, I am being overly harsh with some of those items. But I do often think that there is an image in our heads of what a teacher should be like that is closer to being the biggest, most popular, kid in the class rather than an expert advocate of our students’ true interests.


When Should Education Events Be Held?

November 8, 2014


I had a bit of a disappointment yesterday, my personal highlight of the education event calendar, the Sunday Times Festival of Education at Wellington College (above), will be on a Thursday and Friday next year. While I might be able to get some time off work for the Friday, that is not certain, and what is certain is that the Thursday is completely impractical. If you are familiar with the event, it is on a scale far beyond any of the other events I go to. The number of speakers, the amount of variety and the two day length puts it on a level above anything else. It’s also a place where I first met so many of the bloggers who are now good friends. The event is expensive (it is very good value for money, but it is still a lot if paid by an individual not a school or company), down south, and at an independent school where many teachers work on Saturdays anyway. Perhaps it is inevitable that teachers (and others) who find it difficult to take time off work are not the first priority when it comes to organising it. It seems unlikely it could ever function without the sponsorship, exhibitors, attendees who work in education while not teaching significant timetables (if at all) or, for that matter, schools who send all staff as INSET. However, as somebody who went there as a teacher, and spent the majority of their time there with other teachers and listening to other teachers speak, it does feel like a real loss.

This alone wouldn’t have led to a blog if some kind soul (or agent provocateur) hadn’t made the organisers aware of my discontent and the point came up that teachers won’t give up their Saturdays. Firstly, while I’m not expecting anything to change, I would be grateful if anyone who would happily give up their Saturday, for something as good as the Wellington Festival, did let the world know. There is a petition here that you can sign using Twitter of Facebook. I’m not planning to beat the organisers around the head with it, even if it does get lots of names, because ultimately it is their decision and their priorities that count, but they should know if lots of people feel this way. Secondly, I did want to address the claim that teachers won’t give up Saturdays more generally, as I’ve heard it made in cases that are far less understandable than this.

The argument goes that teachers value their weekends greatly. This is true. They also try to avoid taking work home with them at weekends. This is also true as long as the emphasis is on “try”; I doubt many full-time teachers manage it. Therefore, they won’t do anything education-related at weekend, and would prefer to do it during the week instead of being in school. This is far less true. If you teach classes you often want to minimise your time away from them for their sake. I kept returning to work, on and off, during a family bereavement because I simply couldn’t let an exam class go without me. In fact, if you don’t feel that way it’s often time to leave. I left one school not long after I realised that jury service was more fulfilling than teaching there. Additionally, there are limits to what time away you can get, even if it is classed as CPD. I cannot imagine asking for two days off in any week in any school, and one day can be a bit hit and miss. I have in the past gone years without going on any kind of course. It’s often about power and influence, and only those with lots of one or the other, or both, get away from work in the week. Any event that finds teachers can attend in the week is not getting the frontline, they are getting managers at best, and consultants and other non-teachers at worst.

Perhaps this is often the issue. There are too many groups whose main contact with the teaching profession is with managers and consultants, not those with a full teaching load. Which is why we should consider what the exceptions can show us. I’ve seen or heard the people behind both ResearchED and the La Salle Maths Conference, say they have been told that they will have problems attracting teachers to events on Saturdays. This has repeatedly been shown to be wrong. The ResearchED conference on a Saturday in September attracted over 700 people with hundreds more left on the waiting list. La Salle Maths had something like 500 at their September event (which covered one subject and was in Kettering) and is expecting 800 at their next. Both events have seemed to be overwhelmingly full of teachers. If you build it, they will come. It just takes a willingness to try. I’d also love to see what happens if people try organising events in the school holidays. Perhaps it won’t work, perhaps people don’t want to think of work, but if I can get 30 bloggers to meet up for a drink and a curry in the holidays and talk about education, I can’t imagine that the holidays are a complete write-off.

The more serious side to this is when groups who claim to represent the opinions of teachers hold their events during the working week. Subject associations that hold their AGMs or main conferences on a weekday should be utterly ignored in policy-making. They simply don’t speak for teachers and sometimes (I speak here as a maths teacher) it is very obvious how out of touch they are. And, I’m sure I mentioned this before, I lost all interest in the idea of a (Royal) College of Teaching when an event to mark the start of the process of launching one took place on a weekday and I saw Twitter fill with comments from (and about) consultants, trade union leaders and a handful of senior managers. Teachers are people who work in the week to quite a tight timetable. This should be the first fact anyone considers when doing anything that is intended to engage teachers.



November 5, 2014

There was a bit of a fuss over the last few weeks on education Twitter. It consisted of large groups of Twitterers simultaneously denouncing a series of targets in ever more intemperate ways. It began with Uncommon Schools being criticised for their training videos which showed children being trained to follow a routine in class. Then I was criticised for having argued with people on Twitter. Then Rob Peal was criticised for this brilliant book review. Then I was criticised for having argued with people on Twitter. Then John Blake was in the firing line for minor acts of snarkiness and the suspicion of being posh. Then me again, this time for being a man who argued with people on Twitter. Then a maths teacher, with a couple of hundred followers, was targeted for the crime of not liking some maths homework she’d seen. Then it was me again for denying that I was privately educated (don’t ask). Eventually, the mob started to turn on itself and people were throwing abuse at the some of the most non-confrontational people on Twitter. Then, with a couple of people quitting Twitter, it all seemed to die out.

I don’t know if anyone has learnt anything from the saga. In terms of Twitter, I am going to be very careful to make sure that, when I criticise something, I stay around to make sure the people who agree with me don’t act the same way as that mob. I’m also going to be careful what I share about my own life on Twitter, and to add more smilies when I make jokes about how great I am, as the mob seemed to make great use of of both unhappy times in my life I’ve talked about honestly, and my arrogant persona.

However, it did lead me to reflect on the conduct of educational debate again. The witch-hunt analogy appeared very early on when describing the public denunciations – I went on to label the whole business as “the Twitch-hunt” – which reminded of some of the arguments over Trojan Horse which was described as a witch-hunt by some of those accused. Because education has been dominated by a fairly narrow orthodoxy, it is easy to paint opposing views as heretical. One recent lead article in an education journal talked of  “mainstream educational thought” being challenged by “blogocrats”, as if voices from the staffroom becoming heard on social media were an unwelcome contaminant to a debate which should only ever take place between office-dwelling experts. But considering that even opinions that were once beyond the pale can quickly become the accepted wisdom in the social media age, how do we ensure debate does not become a witch-hunt against dissent and difference? I think there are three key distinctions between a debate and a witch-hunt.

The first is that for a debate it must be possible to answer criticisms. If twenty people have a go at one person, then debate becomes difficult. I’m good at arguing with a lot of people at once, but even I struggle to keep up with answering the comments on my blog. This can become self-reinforcing if those who disagree, having got the false impression that they speak for only a tiny minority, keep their opinions to themselves. Don’t argue against people’s ideas behind their backs, or for that matter, in the third person when they are still part of the discussion. Right to reply should not only be a given, it should be encouraged. If criticism is vague or highly subjective then it is hard to argue against it; a lot of the criticism of Uncommon Schools consisted of little more than people saying “I don’t like the look of that”. Don’t introduce notions of politeness that, if taken seriously, would end debate. Polite disagreement is not a contradiction in terms, but if there is a conflict between civility and debate, let’s favour debate. Similarly, complaints about “tone” are unhelpful when we all naturally imagine all sorts of things about our own tone and the tone of those who disagree with us. If criticisms seem arbitrary, they can be very hard to answer. Certainly a lot of the flak aimed at me was for doing things (like arguing) that others had no problem with when people they agreed with were doing it. This also reminds me of a “Trojan Horse” school being criticised for something that, while questionable, was praised a few months earlier. As far as possible, we should criticise others on matters of principle only after we have set out the basic principles we expect all to follow, defended those principles in debate, and tried to live by them ourselves.

A further complication is if those making the criticisms are doing so from a position of unchallenged power, then debate is more difficult. I do think “unchallenged” is important here. Politicians have power over education, but nobody thinks twice about arguing against what they say. Arguing with your own SLT, or, if you are a school leader, criticising OFSTED can be far more scary. Anything endorsed by the inspectorate is very difficult to argue with, as schools and teachers have found to their cost. I don’t think anything did more to suppress open debate than the period between 2004 and 2012 when OFSTED became the official enforcer of progressive education. And it is simply not good enough for people who are not without power and influence to paint themselves as the victims, or to appeal for pity in order to strengthen one’s debating position. One protagonist in the Twitch-hunt decided to share the fact they were a victim of child abuse, while condemning others for expressing their opinions. How could that ever be relevant? Another proved that those they disagreed with represented “the establishment” by observing that some of them were white, male and straight. It can be difficult to establish who does or does not have power, but these sorts of arguments do not help. Those of us who feel pretty powerless in real-life, but have a significant following on social media, should be aware that we may have power of sorts, although those complaining of “loud voices” on Twitter need to state their complaint in less metaphorical terms.

In addition to the openness of debate, the second distinction between debate and a witch-hunt is the personal nature. We need to be quite clear that criticising somebody’s publicly expressed opinions, or their public behaviour, is acceptable. Criticising their character, even when it is revealed by those opinions and actions, is not. There is a lot of confusion about this. Sometimes legitimate criticism is taken to be personal. For some, their educational ideas are so personal that they are insulted to hear them challenged. For others, their sense of self-worth is so bound up in their teaching practices, that to have those practices challenged is to be told that they are worthless. This is unfortunate, but should not be allowed to stop those debates. Ideas and practices must be challenged, it is only by refuting such challenges that they can be established to have any worth. In particular, people who claim things that are untrue, whether through deliberate deceitfulness, indifference to truth or simply through error, should be challenged. If it is clear they knew what they were saying was not true then it is acceptable, and not an insult, to say that they lied. Similarly, true but misleading claims, must be challenged openly and explicitly. And it is no defence to appeal to one’s personal feelings when one is wrong in a matter of fact or reasoning. If you feel bullied when people point out you are wrong, then you need to put more effort into avoiding being wrong and learn from those mistakes, not demonise those who point it out.

As well as being able to take criticism of ideas and behaviour as not being personal, it is also important to refrain from personal criticism when attempting to criticise ideas and behaviour. Don’t call somebody with stupid ideas “stupid”. Don’t even call a person caught lying “a liar” if you can avoid it (although if they say “are you calling me a liar?” then so be it). If the same behaviour can be described in words with a stronger or weaker implication about the the person doing it, then pick the less personal option. Never use an ad hominem argument, i.e. one that rejects an opinion or argument on the basis of who made it. Do not refer to somebody’s race, class or gender in debate if they do not bring it up. Do not make everything that happens in a debate about you personally. Don’t put anyone in a position where disagreeing with you entails making a claim about themselves, or a claim about you. We should mainly be debating ideas. Sometimes we have to debate how to debate, but we should avoid debating people.

Finally, the third feature of a witch-hunt, is that unlike a debate, you can’t easily drop out of it. Even when you block those doing it, they still attempt to engage with you. Even when you ignore their accusations, they are guaranteed to be repeated to you. Even when you have proved somebody to be wrong, you are faced with an ongoing discussion about how, despite them being wrong and you being right, you are still at fault. It can only end with them giving up, or you being completely silenced or completely excluded. In the school context, it may be a situation where a person with the wrong opinion will have to leave.

I realise I have referred a lot here to recent Twitter debate but this is not an attempt to restart it. I genuinely hope people can see general advantage to abiding by the following three principles in education debate and controversy:

  1. People are able to, and are encouraged to, answer criticisms;
  2. Debate centres on substance not personalities;
  3. People can leave the debate freely i.e. without significant cost.

Now We Are Eight

October 24, 2014


Today marks 8 years since my blogging career began. A year ago I attempted to sum up the first seven years of blogging, but it feels a lot like there is more to report back on from the last year alone than from those 7 years. For a start, the total number of hits on this blog went over a million recently. As the blog used to appear in a couple of other places which wouldn’t be included in the total, the actual millionth hit could have been much earlier but was probably still this year.

There were two remarkably popular posts this year. The first, A Christmas Miracle – OFSTED Get It Right For Once, was simply an update on changes in the OFSTED handbook during the Christmas holidays and seemed to be popular mainly because it was the first place people heard the news. But it was also widely suggested that the changes reflected some of the constant campaigning over OFSTED that had been part of this blog for the previous 10 months. The other blogpost, one that still seems to get around 100 hits a day even now, was The Darkest Term: Teacher Stress and Depression which was a series of anonymous accounts of teachers’ experiences of stress and depression. Sobering reading, although I know some of those who contributed are much happier now. Its popularity says a lot about the profession.

This is the year that Michael Gove ceased to be education secretary. My comments at the time can be found here. He was a regular reader of this blog, and mentioned it in a number of speeches. Although constantly attacked for not understanding what schools or teaching were like, he had been in charge of his party’s education policy for 7 years and had built up a knowledge of the system, and the debates in education, that no other politician can come close to. He’d also made education one of the most important cabinet posts. It’s a shame to see it sink back into obscurity and for the debate to be once more dominated by those who don’t actually seem to realise what’s at issue. I mean, teacher’s oaths? Really?

This is also the year that I went public. As a result of others trying to expose me in an apparent effort to shut me up (how’d that work out for you?) and the fact that I had left my permanent job to go part-time, I decided to end my seven year run of being anonymous and made a number of public appearances. I’ve gone from being absolutely terrified of public speaking in a room of about 30, to really rather enjoying it and daring to appear before one audience that was in the hundreds. I’m particularly fond of discussions as I can get stuck into the debate and don’t have to spend hours preparing. I also like events where there are biscuits.

I’ve appeared in print (as opposed to only online) for the first time this year. Firstly, I wrote the foreword to Robert Peal’s Progressively worse: The Burden of Bad Ideas in British Schools. Then, I contributed a chapter to Rachel Jones’s Don’t change the light bulbs: A compendium of expertise from the UK s most switched-on educators (it’s for charity, buy it!).  More recently I’ve written for Academies Week, firstly about my hobby of going to education events and secondly, contributing a round up of the best education blogs of the week.

I’ve met a number of people who are big in either education or policy for the first time this year, like: Doug Lemov, James O’Shaughnessy and Maurice Glasman (none of whom actually knew who I was at the time), Liz Truss (when still education minister), David Goodhart, Jonathan Simons, Mike Cladingbowl and Sean Harford. I also met television’s Vic Goddard and Oliver from Tough Young Teachers, and came within in a heartbeat of talking to Johnny Ball. I’ve also met and socialised with various education bloggers and tweeters, particularly by organising curries, and I have been doing my bit to try to help good new bloggers find an audience, particularly through The Echo Chamber.

And probably the most exciting experiences were my two contributions to Radio 4 programmes. Firstly, I shared my opinions in an episode of The Report about OFSTED and, more surreally, I was interviewed in my front room by Reeta Chakrabarti for One to One. Fortunately the programme makers edited me into some form of coherence.

No doubt, once I’ve posted this, I’ll think of some even more exciting blog-related activities from this year and add them in the comments. But it’s been an exciting year to be a blogger and a real change from the early years of blogging which mainly consisted of people telling me I should shut up because only bad teachers think there is anything wrong with the education system or progressive teaching. Here’s to the next 8 years.


Has The Debate Moved On?

October 18, 2014

It’s very easy to think that the education world has been transformed. People who used to tell me to shut up because nobody agreed with me, now claim that I should shut up because nobody disagrees. OFSTED are no longer blatantly pushing the progressive bandwagon (although when you look up the consultancies some of their inspectors work for, it is still terrifying). Opinions, that at one point nobody dared to express openly for fear of pariah status, are now mainstream.

But there have been a couple of blogs recently that made me wonder. It was not that I disagreed with their contents (you can look here for some  things I’ve disagreed with recently) but that the writers didn’t seem to realise that what they were saying was going to be controversial. Perhaps they are unused to the internet, and the idea that if you say publicly something people disagree with you will, at the very least, be asked questions. Or perhaps they didn’t realise that many, many people would strongly disagree. But they were all views that made me think: “Did the writer realise that people would disagree strongly with this?”.

One was “Using Lego StoryStarter to Engage A-Level students with the Hitler Myth” in which a teacher described the great success of getting sixth formers to analyse Hitler’s public persona with the German people by use of Lego. I don’t know if the writer missed the controversy over teaching about the Nazis through the medium of Mr Men, but if they did, they clearly didn’t let it affect their choices. The two biggest objections raised then still apply. Firstly, it is infantalising, even more so in this case as it is sixth formers doing A-level, which is meant to be a step to university level study. Secondly, it is poor taste. These are events that led to genocide, not a children’s story. It’s also noticeable that the work produced is not obviously of A-level standard (unless A-level history has changed drastically since I took it). While this might be understandable so early in the year, and I’m not attempting to criticise the students for their work, it seems to provide very little justification for the effectiveness of the method used. Yet the writer seems to have missed all this. He did write a response and as far as people who had criticised thc blogpost had seized on typos or were rude, it’s fair enough to object. However, the key objections, that this is not what sixthformers should be doing, was only dealt with by the defence of saying other people agreed it was okay, including colleagues and students. Perhaps it is acceptable in this teacher’s school; perhaps in behaving this way he was only following orders. However, it was his choice to publicise it and declare it a great success and one wonders how many parts of the education still give the impression that work that resembles play, even for sixthformers, is the best sort of learning.

The other blogpost,  “When swearing in class was a reason to rejoice #restorativepractice” was one that had me fuming rather than bemused. Written by a senior teacher it described how a disciplinary incident was dealt with. A boy has sworn at some girls in a class and upset them. Instead of being punished (some Twitterers tried to deny the absence of punishment, but in a subsequent post the writer makes it clear they object philosophically to punishing chilren), he was made to apologise. The girls did not accept the apology. The boy then became furiously angry, swearing at the blogwriter as well. Still no sanction was issued, but there was a promise to speak to the girls, and as far as I can tell there was an attempt to persuade them to change their attitude. The teacher appears to be entirely motivated by the fact that the boy has been labelled as having “Aspergers” (they don’t say who by) and that other students should make allowances for this. The girls are described as having “closed minds” for wanting the boy to be punished. Standing their ground at first, one eventually caves and accepts the apology. This girl admits she was angry because she had endured similar abuse in the past, and she is put in touch with a colleague who will helps students “manage their emptions”.

It still shocks me that any teacher could excuse such behaviour from any student. SEN is not an excuse for allowing children to be treated in ways that would generally be considered abusive. The denial of natural justice is infuriating. Treating the victims as if they were in the wrong, for objecting makes it worse. The gender politics makes it all even more disturbing; should girls really be told that when boys treat them badly, then an apology makes it okay? The follow-up post uses the false dichotomy I mentioned last time, of claiming that the alternative to letting kids get away with bad behaviour is “behaviourism” as if B.F. Skinner invented the idea of punishing naughty children. It combines this with a narrative of presenting badly behaved children as victims, an approach that’s dehumanising at the best of times, but particularly inappropriate in a case where the actual victims were treated so badly. But the author’s position is clear, she will not punish children:

If Tom had been punished, according to a set of inflexible ‘do this and you’ll get that’ rules, he would not have had the opportunity to practice the skill of apologising and he would already be questioning his ability to succeed within the mainstream.

It’s still one of the most shocking posts I have ever read. If I was a parent at that school I would be looking for somewhere safer for my children. It’s probably the first time I’ve read a blogpost and thought, despite everything, “OFSTED should do something about that”. That a senior teacher in a secondary school could behave like this worries me. That they thought they should share it with the world on a blogpost is just stunning, and does leave me, again, wondering how many schools proudly still have a culture that the right to “inclusion” trumps the right to be treated decently by one’s peers?

I’m sure that there will be no shortage of people who accuse me of misrepresenting the posts, even though I’ve linked to them and would encourage everyone to read them to see if I’m being honest. I’m sure there are those who will advocate the principle of never criticising what somebody else does or writes about, for fear of being negative*, even though debate would be impossible under such a constraint. However, I did think it was important to get these posts out there. They celebrate dumbing down and lenient discipline of a sort that teachers too often claim is only an invention of the Daily Mail and Tory politicians. Most of all they show that there are fundamental differences of value within teaching, that should make us question the idea that any institution, or any oath, or any curriculum, could ever represent the views of all teachers.


*Whenever I disagree with her, Sue Cowley usually claims not to be saying what she appeared to be saying no matter how unlikely this actually is. If she claims that in this case, then please just take this as a general point, rather than one specific to her.


Avoiding the Difficult Choices in Education

October 12, 2014

I wrote this post about a week ago, and it largely follows on from my attempt to attend a large number of education events in a short period of time, described here.  A number of comments I heard about education over that time gave me pause for thought and for similar reasons.

The first was during the Battle of Ideas panel discussion that I was involved in. Emma Knights claimed that there wasn’t a debate over the role of knowledge in education, at least not in schools. (With hindsight, the two of us on the panel who did object were also the only two who are currently employed as teachers).

The second was in reading this article from Academies Week about Nicky Morgan, in which she adds “the fifth priority” of creating well-rounded youngsters “emphasising character, resilience, grit” to the other priorities of her department.

The third was during a “Policymeet” on the fringes of Conservative Party Conference, when Ty Goddard from The Education Foundation, claimed that some of the debates in education should be re-evaluated as “false dichotomies”, and seemed to give many examples, such as knowledge versus skills, academic education versus vocational education. I was not the only person present who was sceptical about this:

I’m not claiming any of this is exceptional. With regard to the “fifth priority”, in education you can set lists of priorities so long that it would be easier to say what isn’t a priority. You can design a curriculum with dozens of aims.  You can give out so many prizes that nobody actually feels rewarded. You can promote almost every teacher in a school without giving them any actual power. When people don’t want to make difficult choices they often find that choosing everything is almost the same as choosing nothing. Like giving a child a 17th final warning, you can create the illusion of making a decision without actually committing yourself to anything.

Similarly, when there are apparently stark choices, (including those relating to knowledge) it is easy to claim that they are “false dichotomies”. Don’t know whether small children are in school to play or to learn? Just claim that they learn best through play. Don’t know whether schools are for education or for socialisation? Just claim children are educated best through socialising. Don’t know whether children should be learning academic subjects or concentrating on hobbies? Just claim that everything is academic. Or nothing. It amounts to the same thing.

There are some genuine false dichotomies in education. There are options that are too vague to be meaningful (like educating the whole child, or encouraging creativity in maths). There are times when certain choices are hidden in order to make an unpalatable position seem the best option. For instance, anyone who wants to let kids get away with bad behaviour is likely to claim the only alternative is a philosophy of “behaviourism”. Or those who want it to be okay for kids to learn nothing, will claim that the alternative is a system driven only by exams. But in cases where we have a choice of what to teach, or what to spend resources on, the choices are unlikely to be false dichotomies. People will have to choose what money is spent on and what is taught in lessons.

All of the examples that I started with, seem to come down to an evasion of difficult choices. And perhaps this is why bureaucracy thrives in English education. For a system to function effectively people do have to decide what they are aiming for. They have to decide what gets priority. They have to commit themselves to their decisions. I am always been sceptical when people claim the NHS faces infinite demand that means resources have to be rationed. But in education, there is always more we can do. We cannot do everything. We cannot prioritise every child and teach every desirable personal quality. Sugar paper, post-it notes and brain-storming might generate lists but they don’t generate decisions. In the system we have, people become unpopular not by making the wrong choices, but by making any choices at all. In systems where nobody chooses what it is that must be done first, nothing gets done, and afterwards people try to find somebody to blame for not doing it.

It is important not to pretend there is no debate to be had. There is debate over everything and there needs to be. There are people we should argue with.

These are real debates, and while I don’t doubt there are those will try to dodge them, telling me that nobody meant what they appeared to be arguing, or that none of the apparent conflicts are actually real. But I cannot accept this. The differences in opinion are real and important. So please: make a decision; choose a side; express an opinion. It’s the only way anything gets done.


Fluency in Mathematics: Part 2

October 6, 2014

I gave a talk on fluency in mathematics in March at Pedagoo London (my first public appearance) and again the weekend before last at the La Salle Education maths conference. This is based on those talks and so, inevitably, it is one in a series of posts. Part one can be found here.


“And this was the greatest number of words I could fit on a single Powerpoint slide”.

At both talks I asked the audience to discuss reasons they may have been wary about giving explanations, using prolonged practice or focusing on fluency in maths. I also asked about reasons others had used to tell them not to teach that way. I then asked whether they came up with the same answers I did. Most of the following featured to some degree:

1) Understanding

The issue of whether students ability to answer questions should take second stage to understanding of some sort is not a new one in mathematics. Tom Lehrer satirised it in the 70s.

The real problem is that understanding is not well-defined. I found four definitions for it and wrote about them here, and for these talks I added another possible definition that it could mean “knowing the connections between topics”. It is only with these multiple definitions of “understanding” to confuse matters that explanation and practice can be sidelined. When “understanding” is tied down to a specific meaning we invariably find that a clear explanation and the building up of fluent knowledge, is the best way to promote understanding.

2)  Problem-Solving

While problems might well have a part to play later on in practising the application of knowledge, it is unclear why anyone would imagine problem-solving is useful for the acquisition of new knowledge. It causes a distraction from what we should be thinking about (the thing we need to know) and is likely to tax working memory unnecessary making retention more difficult. While problem-solving approaches to maths have been continually fashionable, their effectiveness is far from proven. Hattie (2009), who summarised research using effect sizes, where 0.4 showed average effectiveness, found problem-solving learning to have a very poor effect size of 0.15:

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3) Discovery/Inquiry

This is a very similar point, in that in practice it also involves engaging students in activities where new knowledge is meant to result. Again it is very fashionable. And again, the same objections apply: it is likely to distract from what is to be learnt and to limit retention. Again, Hattie found an unimpressive effect size:

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4) Engagement/Enjoyment

It is not always clear what “engagement” means as I discussed here. If it is used to mean enjoyment, then there are serious questions to be asked about the assumption that students learn best when enjoying themselves. There is too much research on that question to reference here, although hopefully I will get round to blogging about it soon, but while anxiety or hysteria won’t be great for learning, there’s strong evidence against the general principle that we learn more effectively the happier we are.

5) Groupwork/Discussion

If I’ve described anything else as “fashionable” then this tops that tree. There’s no clear evidence that groupwork is as ineffective as problem-solving or discovery, but Hattie’s effect size of 0.41 for cooperative learning would indicate it is unexceptional as a method. I would not seek to prevent groupwork, but find its aggressive promotion unwarranted.

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There is a lot of psychology literature on how people work in groups. Different conditions make it more or less effective. Its potential negative effect on motivation, known as “the Ringelmann Effect” is long-established and there are certain types of thinking that are thought to be less effective in groups. The widespread belief that groupwork is an essential part of good teaching seems implausible, and provides little reason to crowd out other methods of teaching.

Update 7/9/2014: It was pointed out to me on Twitter that Hattie also quotes one meta-analysis that takes subject into account and found an effect size of 0.01 for cooperative learning in maths.


The first time I gave this talk I could only confirm that OFSTED did seem opposed to developing fluency and this was the one point on which I could not deny the objection. The details are described here and I showed some of this video to underline the point:

When I gave the talk last week, I could be more optimistic. Inspectors should not be requiring a particular way to teach and shouldn’t be grading you individually anyway. The old subject survey guidance that laid out a depressingly trendy vision of how to grade maths lessons is now gone. Hopefully, this demon has been slain.

7) Technology

The idea here is that technological change has changed the nature of schooling or society. I’ve used these before, but in a week where the TES published this, it is worth remember just how long the claims that traditional teaching is doomed have been going on. Here is some of the usual rhetoric:

The idea that our schools should remain content with equipping children with a body of knowledge is absurd and frightening. Tomorrow’s adults will be faced with problems about the nature of which we can today have no conception. They will have to cope with the jobs not yet invented.


we find ourselves in a rapidly changing and unpredictable culture. It seems almost impossible to foresee the particular ways in which it will change in the near future or the particular problems which will be paramount in five or ten years.


Books will soon be obsolete in the public schools…Our school system will be completely changed inside of ten years.


These quotations are actually from 1966, 1956, and 1913, respectively. (Sources for the latter 2 can be found by searching my blog, and for the first from this book).

This does not disprove the argument about technology, but it does seem to shift the burden of proof. A more developed case can be found here,  here and here.

8) Independence

The philosophical arguments about independence and autonomy can be found here. And I would add to it now, that if independence from the teacher was so important, then it is hard to explain the effectiveness of Direct Instruction, a method of teaching very much focused on the role of the teacher:

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9) Research and Training

Probably the biggest reason for the poor view of fluency many maths teachers have is that we’ve often been trained by those who would deny its importance. We’ve also often been told that this is justified by the research. A proper take down of the shambles that is maths education research here and in the US would take a whole blogpost, but you can get a flavour of it by looking at the work of Jo Boaler, the criticisms of it, and the methods she uses to silence critics. This does not resemble scientific research or academic debate in anyway. The field is mainly propaganda for groupwork, mixed ability teaching and the methods of “fuzzy maths”. There does now seem to be the first signs of debate, and I was able to mention a few papers that challenge improve on the research methods and challenge the orthodoxy, but it seems early days and too much of what I have found is by economists and not published in maths education journals despite seeming to be of much higher quality than the studies that do get published:

Continued in part 3


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