Posts Tagged ‘education’

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A Guide To Scenes From The Battleground

June 17, 2014

I have updated this guide, having neglected it for a few months (sorry).

This blog is about the state of secondary education. There is an introduction to it here:

And some reflections on it here:

Here is a summary of my main points:

Here are a few posts written purely for a laugh (although some of them perhaps make a point at the same time):

The following posts sum up what is typical in schools these days in various respects:

Behaviour:

Curriculum:

Teachers and Managers:

Special Needs:

School Life:

Miscellaneous:

As well as the advice for teachers included in many of the other posts, I have written advice specifically for new teachers:

These deal more directly with my own personal experiences, or the experiences of others:

I have also written a number of posts exploring and explaining how this situation came to be, discussing the arguments in education and suggesting what can be done.

Background:

Apologia:

Progressive Education:

Behaviour:

Initiatives:

Education Policy and Current Affairs:

OFSTED:

Teaching and Teachers:

Educational Ethics and Philosophy:

Education Research and Academics

Here are some videos I found on the internet which I thought were interesting, or relevant, enough to present in a blog post:

I wrote about some of the myths that are spread to teachers, often in INSET or during PGCEs:

I have also outlined what I would expect from schools willing to do put things right:

Here are my book recommendations:

This may be of interest if you are considering writing a blog:

You may also have found me…

Please let me know if any of the links don’t work.

Finally, I can be found on Facebook (please “friend” me) or Twitter (please “follow” me).

If you want to keep up with education blogging other than mine, or to see some of these same concerns discussed by others, then you should follow my sister blog, The Education Echo Chamber. The blog is here. The twitter feed is here.

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Eight Out Of Forty-Three Ain’t Bad (If You’re a Member of SMT)

April 30, 2009

After six weeks of term in which my year ten class have continued to disrupt every lesson, I decided I’d had enough. I found the worst few incidents of the last couple of weeks (being called a twat by Charlene and being told to fuck off by Daniel) and emailed SMT about it. I was surprised to get responses. I was not surprised that the responses consisted of passing responsibility to other people and/or denying knowledge of the incidents. Neither incident had appeared on the school’s behaviour database system despite two weeks having passed.

There were some incidents on the system. Madelaine and Will had been given a day in isolation on Wednesday (this is the standard punishment for being sent out of lessons). Madelaine had earned this by repeated interruptions and calling another student “a pregnant bitch” and Will had earned this by refusing to stop singing while I was talking. The odd thing about this is that on Wednesday, when they were meant to be isolation, Madelaine and Will had attended my lesson and disrupted it. I raised this and was told that these students had been let out of isolation unsupervised to go and have injections. They had then gone to my lesson to disrupt it rather than returning to isolation. Evidently the pleasure they get from stopping me from teaching is not easily foregone.

At a tough school you expect to have lessons disrupted and you expect to get verbal abuse. You can also expect SMT and HOYs to ignore incidents referred to them. However, they usually act eventually when it’s every lesson for a fortnight and you are emailing them every day about what’s happening. This time it’s been six weeks without progress. Previously well-behaved kids were joining in. So I contacted my union rep, Diane, to ask to see her about what was happening. (Unions are actually quite good at politely asking why kids are allowed to victimise their members with impunity, that’s why Jim Bulmer the head at Stafford Grove was reputed to bully union reps with hostile observations until they left). She popped in to see me while I was in the detention hall. I was allowed out for a brief chat and the Deputy Head “just happened to” overhear. Before I knew it there was a flurry of activity and he was agreeing to meet me Friday afternoon to discuss the matter.

I did my homework. I compiled the 43 incidents into a handy spreadsheet. 17 had not appeared on the behaviour system. Of those that had appeared only 8 listed any form of action that had been taken.

8 out of 43.

It even shocked me to see how many incidents of verbal abuse had been ignored. That said, it is the repeat offenders that make the inaction so depressing. Dave had walked out of 5 lessons without anybody doing anything to encourage him to stop. Daniel had been sent out of half the lessons he’d attended. Printed it out just made it obvious how badly I’d been let down by the system. How badly the kids in the class had been let down by the system.

On Friday I was surprised to see the Year Head for year 10 joining us. The Deputy Head and Year Head were soon promising to chase up certain students and let the year ten mentor assist in lessons. If anything they were too helpful now that the unions were involved; I had to persuade them that I didn’t currently want any help with my other year 10 class. As ever, the excuses were the main entertainment value of the meeting. The Deputy Head talked at length (convincingly) about how the schools budget for Teaching Assistants had been underspent and how outside contractors had been unable to deliver the updated behaviour system on time. The Year Head was less convincing. Apparently the lack of action on her part was down to:

a) Computer errors which made incidents just disappear from the system

or

b) Other members of staff leaving the door to the Year Head’s office open, thereby allowing students to sneak in and remove referrals from her desk.

Of course, if you believe that you’d probably also believe that the main discipline problem in school is “low-level disruption” and that exams are as difficult as they were twenty years ago.

Postscript

The following Monday I got to see the full list of results from the first modular GCSE exam year 10 took in March. Out of the ten classes in the year group there were only two in which the majority of students had met or exceeded their targets. I had taught both of those classes. No other class had more than three pupils reach their targets. A number of my colleagues later explained to me that their results were disappointing because they’d had some poor behaviour with year ten recently.

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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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Self-Esteem: Part 2

April 12, 2009

Last time I discussed Emler (2001)’s review of the research about self-esteem. I observed that it simply did not fit with any of the claims made by those who think that we can improve behaviour through raising self-esteem. However, it is only showing that the empirical research confirms what common sense told us all along. Human beings do not form their opinions of themselves independently of how they think others perceive them. They might be wrong about the judgements of others, but nobody thinks “I’m great, everybody will hate me” or “I’m worthless, but everybody who meets me will really admire me”. If you have low self-esteem you will fear the attention of the crowd not seek it out. Apart from those who misbehave where everyone misbehaves, badly behaved students at the very least think they deserve to be a centre of attention or that they should get their way over others. This is not a sign of low self-esteem, although doesn’t have to show boundless self-confidence. It is often the act of a mediocre character trying to become A Big Deal. If they do not already think they are better or more important than everyone else, then at the very least they believe they are talented enough to convince others that they are. The only common ground between those with low self-esteem and the badly behaved is that they both wish to be approved of by the pack. But there is a world of difference between wanting enough approval to be accepted and wanting enough approval to be the leader of the pack. The former involves trying to fit in, and the latter involves trying to stand out. A badly behaved student might misbehave to get more attention, but not because they feel insignificant in themselves, but because they want to be the most significant person in the room.

If we are in the business of denying human nature we would grasp every opportunity to see poor self-esteem as a motive for wrongdoing. Once we start doing this then it soon becomes easy to collect evidence. Every sign of dissatisfaction a student shows about their place or their achievement will be seen as a sign that they see themselves as inferior rather than that they aspire to be superior. If a disruptive attention-seeking child becomes enthusiastic about the work when they are doing well we will see it as evidence that they are gaining confidence rather than because they have seen another route to attention. If an irritating squib of a child acts like they are the king of the universe we will imagine they are acting that way because they are compensating for their own inadequacies, rather than because they have delusional confidence in their own strengths. Most of the time when a teacher concludes that a badly behaved boy must secretly hate himself what the teacher actually feels that he should hate himself if he has any sense. Attention-seekers are not secretly shy, any more than bullies are actually cowards. Unfortunately, the appeasers find the observation that troublemakers need to be taken down a peg, not built up any further, to be too cruel. They imagine that a swaggering, arrogant child is showing deep insecurity and fear. Like a conspiracy theorist or a Flat-Earther, they would refuse to accept what was in front of them, if it did not fit in with the cosy worldview where every child in the classroom is a victim and nobody (except perhaps the teacher) is a villain.

As ever, approaches to behaviour based on a denial of what human beings are like are spectacularly ineffective. Students whose behaviour is meant to be a result of low self-esteem are never cured by intervention. Praise and attention work only in so far as they appease, and like all appeasement it comes at a price which isn’t worth paying. Worse, if it becomes accepted that a student is behaving badly because of low self-esteem then it is assumed that any teacher they misbehave for must be undermining their confidence. By taking such a position those managers who are most willing to talk about the confidence of students are often the most willing to destroy confidence in teaching staff. Disastrously, teachers will be expected to praise those who are least deserving of it and blamed when those students still don’t behave. Justice takes another step back in the face of cod psychology.

So far I have concentrated mainly on the attempts to raise the self-esteem of the badly behaved. Self-esteem is also often adopted as a more general aim of education. The new National Curriculum lists among its aims the intention of creating “Confident individuals [who] have a sense of self-worth and personal identity”. It has been suggested that attempts to boost self-esteem will create narcissists and prove harmful. While I firmly believe self-esteem is not always a good thing (and that pride is a sin and humility a virtue) I am most certainly not convinced self-esteem is necessarily a bad thing. Just because self-worship is not something to be instilled in the young, I would not want to go to the other extreme of encouraging a lack of self-esteem. Self-hatred can be as incredibly selfish as self-love. So by all means let teachers raise self-esteem in their students, as long as that esteem is deserved as a result of academic achievement or good behaviour. I don’t mind if students feel good as a result of being educated or as being part of a healthy community. What I object to is the belief that “feeling good” takes priority over justice. This is, perhaps, inevitable at a time when trying to get students to feel good is also taking priority over education.

Dilbert.com

References:

Elmer, Nicholas, 2001, Self-esteem: the Costs and Causes of Low Self-Worth, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, York

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Self-Esteem: Part 1

April 5, 2009

“I have noticed that students lacking in self esteem can display behavioural problems. I have found that the lower the self esteem the greater the negative effect. Would you agree with this and what can I do to help promote a greater sense of self esteem in my students? Thank you”

Post on the TES forum

The words “self-esteem” are never far from the lips of appeasers. It can be used both directly and indirectly to excuse poor behaviour. In the indirect case where a badly behaved student has an identified problem (such as: poverty; a learning disability; membership of a possibly oppressed social group, or, of course, bad teachers) it is used to explain why their disadvantaged status has affected their behaviour. Disadvantage has lowered their self-esteem, and poor behaviour is merely a reaction to that low self-esteem. Alternatively, in cases where the badly behaved student has no obvious problem that can be used to justify treating them as a victim then, often in defiance of all the available facts, low self-esteem is drafted in to be the problem. In both cases low self-esteem is seen as a clear motive for anti-social and irresponsible behaviour. In extreme cases of appeasement this link is seen as so obvious that low self-esteem can be diagnosed from poor behaviour alone. Once the diagnosis of low self-esteem has been made then attempts to raise self-esteem, through praise, special attention, and other miscellaneous treats which are usually indistinguishable from rewarding them for their bad behaviour, can begin.

The belief that self-esteem can explain all sorts of social ills (particularly those which most obviously stem from human weakness) is widely used as an alternative to realism about human behaviour. Low self-esteem makes people do bad things, but can be cured by, what can only be described as “niceness”. If we just share the love nobody will ever become addicted to drugs, engage in risky sexual behaviour, or commit crimes. Emler (2001) identified countless examples of this sort of thinking. (Oprah Winfrey features prominently.) He also reviewed the research literature, particularly empirical studies of self-esteem (and this forms the factual basis of the rest of this blog entry). He arrives at a conclusion which deserves to be widely known.

What has become common sense in this matter – only people with low self-esteem act in ways that are harmful to themselves or others – turns out as a blanket generalisation not to be a reliable or sound basis for policy initiatives.”

In fact:

“… the pattern indicates the following: people who have, or admit to, negative feelings about themselves also treat themselves badly (and may be badly treated by others). They do not tend to treat others badly.” [original emphasis]

“[T]reating themselves badly” here does not even extend to drug use, smoking or drinking, or pursuits that are simply “risky” rather than harmful. This does not give much grounds for suspecting that low self-esteem is a cause of bad behaviour in schools. He states that:

“Young people with low self-esteem are not more likely as a result to:

• commit crimes, including violent crimes

• use or abuse illegal drugs

• drink alcohol to excess or smoke …

• fail academically.”

This hardly fits in with the lifestyles of the worst behaved students in our schools. It is also noticeable that some behaviour which is mentioned as being more common in young people with high self-esteem such as holding prejudiced attitudes towards ethnic minorities and engaging in “physically risky pursuits” is often seen in badly behaved students.

The one possible connection between low self-esteem and poor behaviour is that young people with low self-esteem are more likely “to fail to respond to social influence”. However, this is less than convincing as evidence of a link between low self-esteem and poor behaviour. It would be more than a little naïve to suggest that the social influences students face are all towards good behaviour. More importantly it turns out that young people with very high self-esteem are also more likely to reject social influence; it is those with middling self-esteem who follow the crowd. Even if we did identify somebody whose self-esteem led them to misbehave in ways that involve rejecting social influences we’d have to deal with the fact that high self-esteem is more common than low self-esteem. Also, it turns out that low self-esteem in children does not seem to correspond to social class or to being a member of an oppressed ethnic minority, so not only does it apparently not directly cause poor behaviour, but it cannot be used to suggest deprivation or social disadvantage might cause poor behaviour.

Of course, even if we can find no general connection between poor behaviour and low self-esteem this still leaves the possibility that there may be a small number of students with poor behaviour and low self-esteem, and that in these cases a change in self-esteem could have an impact on their behaviour. Unfortunately, even in this unlikely case the research does not indicate we could do very much. Observations of self-esteem turn out to very inaccurate, or at the very least they turn out not to correspond to accepted psychological tests, so it is unlikely we’d accurately identify such a case in the first place. Even if we did identify this situation, the sort of “self-esteem building” programs that schools engage in are not terribly effective (in some cases there is no evidence of any effect at all). They are also apparently less effective on students who have been targeted as in need of them, than when they given to students who have been selected randomly. If a student genuinely did need their self-esteem raised it would be far more effective to have an expert administer cognitive-behaviourial therapy than to expect teachers to deal with it in school.

The scientific evidence simply does not support efforts to deal with bad behaviour in schools by raising self-esteem. As ever, we have an approach to education based on the belief that children are natural saints, and a desire to ignore any fact which does not fit with this.

References:

Elmer, Nicholas, 2001, Self-esteem: the Costs and Causes of Low Self-Worth, Joseph Rowntree Foundation

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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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Selling Out

February 22, 2009

I have decided to get out of the Metropolitan School, but I’ve been burnt enough times to know better than to rush.

I looked for a school where I could get a promotion and where the results were good. I didn’t have to wait long. My “email alerts” informed me of a suitable vacancy in a Catholic school in a rather affluent suburban town. The journey was quite lengthy, but no worse than it is to get to the Metropolitan School. The school’s A*-C level was over ninety percent, the area was leafy and privileged and the number of students with SEN was very low.

I spent the next few weeks getting everything sorted. I sought out my headteacher (that took over a week), my priest, and an old friend from Stafford Grove School to agree to give me references. I got the application form and filled it out and was happy to be invited to interview. I was somewhat taken aback to be told by my current headteacher that he’d received a request for references only on the afternoon of the day before the interview, which didn’t indicate a great deal of planning in the interview process. Similarly, when I phoned for more details about the lesson they wanted me to teach as part of the interview I couldn’t get hold of anybody, and couldn’t find out if I’d have access to a projector or interactive whiteboard.

When I arrived I discovered that there were three of us being interviewed. We each had a half hour lesson to teach, a tour of the school and interviews scheduled for the rest of the morning, with mine being planned for just before lunch. Inevitably, I found myself comparing everything with my current school.

The first culture shock was having to teach a year 7 class. They seemed genuinely enthusiastic to have their regular lesson interrupted. None of them asked for a pen, all of them listened to what I said. The biggest shock was when I asked for a volunteer to hand out worksheets and every single hand in the room went up. It was like having a class where every single child was Rod or Todd Flanders. There was one late arrival, Owen, who seemed unwilling to work, and he was on report and clearly being closely monitored.

Afterwards, the assistant head who had observed my lesson gave me feedback. She raved about the lesson, which due to the lack of foreknowledge had mainly consisted of direct questioning and writing on an ordinary whiteboard, i.e. the sort of thing I could have done off the top of my head without preparation. She told me that the lesson was at the very least “good” by OFSTED standards. She praised my behaviour management (apparently I’d done well to spot Owen), use of formative assessment, and relationship with the kids. I was delighted, I am used to having lessons like that criticised at the Metropolitan School. It made it sink in just how much teachers are judged on the attitude of the children, not the quality of the teaching.

The tour of the school was, as you’d expect, a succession of buildings which didn’t really reveal anything, although the children did seem extraordinarily well-behaved. What was very odd about it was that no opportunity was taken to introduce us to the other members of the department.

Then I waited while the other candidates were interviewed, I had the misfortune to be last and had to wait over an hour. Then the assistant head came in and said the head had been held up and asked if I could wait until after lunch. I had no choice but to agree. After lunch the other candidates went for a walk round while I waited for another hour. Finally I was called in. The interview was long, and strange. They had no interest in asking about my use of technology, but were quite happy to ask completely random questions like “What is the definition of Education?” and “So, do you agree that extra-curricular activities are a waste of time?” They reacted to every answer with so much agreement and smiling that it became absolutely impossible to judge whether I’d given a good answer or not.

After the interview I sat with the other candidates and chatted. Apparently we’d all been asked completely different questions which seemed rather odd. We were all equally bemused by the choice of questions and the reactions. None of us had been asked the usual question of “Are you a firm candidate?”

After an hour’s waiting, a teacher from the department we’d applied to came in and chatted. He explained that almost everyone in the department was an NQT. It seemed more than a little odd that nobody had mentioned this.

After another hour’s waiting and we were getting a bit fed up. One of the candidates went to find out if she could go home but failed to get an answer. Finally, we were called to the heads office and told “we don’t want to appoint until we’ve checked some more references. We’ll call tomorrow.”

Two days later the Head phoned to say that all the references had been checked out and were fine but they had been unable to agree who to appoint so had decided not to appoint anybody. By this point it wasn’t even a disappointment. I asked for feedback on the interview and was told only positive things which told me nothing at all.

I don’t know much about posh schools. I’m forming a tentative theory that they are run by people who couldn’t run up the proverbial piss-up in a brewery.

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