Archive for May, 2009


Performance Related Pay?

May 30, 2009

I think the following, the latest video from the great Dan Willingham, gives a pretty good summary of what’s wrong with trying to pay teachers by results:



May 28, 2009

The educational philosopher John Wilson, wrote an excellent chapter about discipline in his book “Philosophy and Practical Education” (1977). He observed that other philosophers had identified “discipline” as a kind of good order (or control) that was conducive to learning. Some writers even identified discipline with a situation where order was maintained because students understood the point of what they were learning. Wilson found this to be inadequate, and almost a form of wishful thinking on the part of philosophers who wish to use the word “discipline” to refer predominately to the situation they most approve of.  Their conception of “discipline” can be criticised because a situation could be ordered or even organised without much actual use of discipline, for instance due to the existing disposition of the students or the charm or beauty of the teacher. Wilson also notes that “discipline” is sometimes used to refer to situations (like that of military discipline) where learning is not the over-riding objective. He concludes that discipline actually centres on obedience and, in particular, obedience to an authority. He notes that this is a deeply unfashionable viewpoint to take and might be condemned as “totalitarian” or as a form of “tyranny”.

If obedience was unfashionable then, I fear that it is even more unfashionable now. But of course, in the topsy-turvy world of education there is nothing more unfashionable than what is clearly right. Obedience is not tyranny, nor totalitarianism, nor is it training for a life of servility. Obedience is a basic prerequisite for a learning relationship. If you are going to learn it is essential that you follow the instructions of your instructor. If you don’t then you are unlikely to learn because a significant proportion of instructions are given because following them will result in learning. Even a lot of instructions that relate to behaviour, such as requests to pay attention or stop talking, are simply establishing what needs to be done in order to learn.

Of course, an anti-authoritarian might object by pointing out that there are some instructions that don’t relate directly to learning. For instance: instructions to smarten up one’s uniform, not to drop litter, to stop chewing gum or to show good manners. Now, this is not really the place to explain why we might want children to be polite, tidy and not perpetually chewing, but once it is accepted that we might request such things from students then we don’t have the option of allowing students to disobey in these cases and not in others. Selective obedience is no obedience at all. If students find such instructions too burdensome to obey they will quickly find instructions relating to learning equally burdensome. It should take extreme grounds (such as inappropriate instructions that impinge upon safety or propriety) to justify any disobedience at all.

Now, unless you are very fortunate, a teacher in a British school can expect to be directly disobeyed by students dozens of times a day. The nature of this disobedience will vary. Many students, particularly in lessons, will not comply with instructions until they have seen that other students are complying. You actually see them look around the room while they decide whether to do what has been asked. Other students will see particular categories of instruction (like “do your work”, “take the homework sheet with you” or “bring a pen to the lesson”) as purely optional. Some students will be embarrassed to obey a teacher in public, and will only follow instructions slowly and discretely. Some students are simply looking for confrontation and will disobey in the hope of being able to wind up their teacher. Some students will have existing (low) expectations about what should happen in a lesson and refuse to comply with any instruction that challenges those expectations.  Often disobedience is a habit, and even students who want to learn will have to make a deliberate effort to break the habit before they can comply with instructions. Such students almost welcome the threat of a punishment because they know it will give them motivation to comply and make it more acceptable to obey in front of their peers. Many teachers become so used to disobedience that they cease to see it as defiance. They just absorb the idea that nobody can take their coat off without being asked five times and start to see the repetition of instructions and the issuing of threats as little more than a form of punctuation that is necessary for effective communication.

Minor behaviour problems such as being off-task and talking when the teacher is talking are usually a form of deliberate disobedience. Major behaviour problems, such as verbal abuse and threats, are often attempts to intimidate teachers in order to stop them expecting obedience. The expectation of obedience is the basic element that separates classes and schools with good behaviour from classes and schools with poor behaviour. Obedience is the virtue that schools and teachers cannot compromise on. Unfortunately, it is something they usually do compromise on. A good discipline system will see any disobedience whatsoever as grounds for punishment. Bad discipline systems will see it as a teachers’ responsibility to nag, cajole, encourage and ultimately beg students to comply with a given instruction.

And one final note about disobedience. It is the root cause of much, probably most, teacher stress and, in my experience, most teacher nightmares. A teacher in a British school is likely to be used to starting to do something, even something as simple as speaking, and having to stop what they are doing due to deliberate disobedience. If you are not a teacher it might be hard to imagine how frustrating this defiance is. I can only suggest that you imagine that feeling you get when you are in a traffic jam on an important journey. Now imagine how you feel when you think the traffic is starting to move on, only for it to grind to a halt a second later, and imagine that happening repeatedly for hours on end. Now imagine how you feel when you realise that the hold-up is not actually due to an accident ahead, or a busy road, but is in fact due to somebody (probably a caravan owner) deliberately driving at 10mph in front of you and not letting anyone overtake. Now imagine that you are trapped in this situation for two dozen hours a week. Finally, imagine that every so often your boss drives up to your window and tells you that if you are trapped in a traffic jam it must be because you are a crap driver. If you can imagine that, then you have some idea how frustrating it feels to be a teacher.


The Battleground Bookshelf

May 16, 2009

I would recommend the following ten books to anyone interested in the issues covered in this blog:

“Why Don’t Students Like School?” by Daniel T. Willingham (2009). A book on what cognitive science can tell teachers by a professor of psychology. Some of it is common sense. Some of it is useful teaching advice. Some of it debunks rubbish like learning styles. Some of it is just interesting science. All of it is the perfect antidote to the nonsense teachers are told about the mind and the brain and how they work.

“All Must Have Prizes” by Melanie Phillips (1996). While I don’t agree with every policy suggested in it, this blistering polemic is a masterful survey of the dumbing down of education in the preceding decades. Devalued qualifications; attacks on content, and ridiculous methodologies are all given a thorough going over, as is the unaccountable, ideologically-motivated, educational establishment and the craven political classes responsible for what is described.

“Interest and Discipline in Education” by P.S.Wilson (1971). My favourite book from the philosophy of education boom in the sixties and seventies. Wilson analyses a number of key educational concepts in an interesting and thought-provoking way. I recommend it simply because once you have read the discussion on such things as “interest” and “needs” you will be more easily able to identify and challenge the shoddy, incoherent thinking on those topics that is still commonplace in education today.

“The Craft of The Classroom” by Michael Marland (1975). The classic, realistic guide to classroom management aimed at the secondary school teacher. This is solid practical advice that won’t achieve miracles, but is far superior to the sentimental nonsense that passes for advice in so much of the behaviour management industry. Solid routines, effective surveillance and “control” are seen as essential both to bring about learning and for the well-being of students.

“The Voice of Liberal Learning” by Michael Oakeshott (1989). A collection of philosophical essays by one of the twentieth century’s greatest thinkers. He helps establish the purposes of educational institutions as involving thought and knowledge rather than socialising inmates. Oakeshott, despite being a conservative, was always willing to think through concepts in new ways, and his analysis of what learning is remains the most convincing I have ever read.

“Does Education Matter?” by Alison Wolf  (2002). An analysis of education policy, concentrating particularly on vocational education. This book relates the recent history of efforts by politicians to boost the economy through education and the embarrassing mess that has resulted. The horror story of efforts to introduce vocational qualifications and “skills”, particularly in further education, is reason enough to distrust all alleged alternatives to an academic education.

“Wisdom, Information and Wonder” by Mary Midgley (1991). A philosophy book that seeks to answer the question of what knowledge is for. Not explicitly a book about schooling, this book, nevertheless, identifies many of the bad philosophical ideas that have poisoned our schools. She critiques the ideas that education is a simple accumulation of information and efforfts to make ethics a matter of subjective opinion, and suggests that unfashionable concepts such as wisdom and blame are still necessary.

“No Excuses” by Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom (2004). An American book explaining how schools in the US can close the “racial gap” in education. While the education gap in this country is more about class than race, the analysis still holds true. It turns out that the answer is providing good schools with good discipline and challenging the culture of failure is what works. By contrast, blaming everything on racist teachers and trying to raise children’s self-esteem doesn’t work.

“Laying Down the Law” by Joe Clark with Joe Picard (1989). The story of how a challenging US school was turned round, this book is the ultimate “how to” guide to improving a school. It’s pretty simple really. It turns out that if you stage a coup and impose a management regime that will refuse to tolerate teachers who don’t teach and students who don’t behave, there will be a positive effect on the lives of students. Inspiring and heroic.

“Surviving and Succeeding in Difficult Classrooms” by Paul Blum (1989). The best guide to teaching in the worst schools. Indispensable to teachers in bad situations; this is also a real eye-opener to anyone who wants to know just how bad things can get. Worth reading just for the introduction which explains just why we need to ignore the myth that behaviour problems can be solved simply by good teaching.


You Know it’s Time to Quit Teaching When…

May 9, 2009

If you are a teacher and any of the following applies to you then it is time to get out:

1) Your nightmares about going back to work after a holiday start before the holiday.

2) You fondly imagine what it would be like to be off work with a broken leg.

3) You physically recoil if somebody outside of work calls you “Sir” (or “Miss”) or you hear your surname.

4) When the news reports on the tragic death of a child your immediate thought is to hope that it is one of your year 10s.

5) One of your colleagues, who is in the Territorial Army, is called up to go to a war zone for six months and your first thought is “lucky bastard”.

6) You decide where to go shopping/on holiday/for a drink entirely on the basis of minimising the chance of running into one of your students.

7) You start everything you say with “Okay, it’s time to move on.”

8) You have your union rep’s number on speed dial.

9) You spend time working out your chances of being off work with a bereavement (to the point of working out which relative you’d miss least).

10) The laughter of children causes you physical pain.

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