The Illusionists

March 13, 2010

One of the consequences of the poor management of our schools is that managers very often don’t know how to recognise teaching. They recognise activity; they will know that there are classrooms which appear productive and well managed, but they will have neither the experience of effective teaching themselves, nor the grasp of data, to accurately judge whether the activity in the classroom actually corresponds to teachers teaching and students learning.

These are the classrooms of the Illusionists.

Illusionists are masters of every classroom art other than teaching. They will have good discipline. There will be a buzz of activity in their room. There will be a variety of activities in the classroom. Students who can be disruptive will appear engaged. There will be work, often work that appears difficult, in their books. Indeed, everything that happens in their classroom will appear to be in order. Just one thing will be missing: learning.

Learning is hard work. In a battleground school the ringleaders among the students have a lot to think about just maintaining their social position. They do not need the extra responsibility of having to learn as well. They will willingly enter into an implicit bargain, with any teacher who cannot be overwhelmed by poor behaviour, which says: “You will not have to think hard in class; you will not have to work hard in class; you will not have to stop your conversations except briefly; you will only have to cooperate with the appearance of learning in the classroom, and you will be kept comfortable in lessons.”

The Illusionist will expect students to work, but only a little. The Illusionist will expect students to listen, but only a little. The Illusionist will expect the students to please them, but will be pleased by very little. When students cannot complete the work themselves the Illusionist will tell them the answers. When short cuts to completing the work can be found, students will be allowed to take them. When rigour can be avoided, it will be. Students will be praised for nothing, and failure will be glossed over.

Look into the classroom as an outsider and everything will appear fine. A class will be focussed on a demanding topic. There will be order. There will be the appearance of work. There will be pair-work and group-work and students interacting, sat in a horse shoe shape or around desks grouped into “islands” facing each other. Sometimes there will even be brief explanations being given by the teacher.

Other than good teaching, there will only really be two things missing: assessment and pressure. The Illusionist will not try to find out whether the student has really learnt anything and they will not try to make the student feel they should have. This makes for a calm comfortable classroom, the only pressure to learn will be that applied by the students themselves. In those subjects where students are not examined then none of this will ever be seen as wrong. In those subjects where students are subject to formal assessment then there may be greater difficulties, but not insurmountable ones. If the assessment involves coursework then this can be done for them. (Illusionists are about the only teachers who actually like coursework). If the subject has exams then students will be encouraged to compensate for the lack of learning in class with learning at home or through extra-curricular opportunities. Parents will be phoned; resources will be sent home; persuasion will be applied, all to this end. Target classes and target students may even be temporarily subject to some actual teaching. Results might not be incredible, but they should be passable because in our system only some classes count. As long as target students aren’t the ones who underachieve it doesn’t matter if all others do.

Power can also help here. Control of setting and allocation of staff within a department can direct probable failure away from the Illusionist and to other members of staff. Similarly, students or classes who are already set for success can be redirected to the Illusionist. Control of resources, either human (teaching assistants, student teachers) or physical (rooms, text books, ICT) can be directed for personal advantage. Control of assessment, data, or appraisal of staff can help conceal failure, or reassign responsibility for it. As long as there is no transparency in how decisions are taken, then nobody will be in a position to know what is really going on. If responsibility for line-managing others is held by the Illusionist then credit and blame can be assigned behind people’s backs. In some departments, in some whole schools, there seem to be nothing but Illusionists. The only game anyone plays is that of passing the buck. In such schools management responsibilities are passed around at a dizzying speed, with nobody holding onto a particular managerial responsibility long enough to be blamed for failing at it. Nothing indicates the presence of an Illusionist more than the personally successful manager of apparently unsuccessful colleagues, except, perhaps, the disillusionment of those who actually want the students – all students – to learn.


  1. Oh dear. My department.

  2. Very perceptive and well-written, as always. Once again, I suspect that we may be colleagues because my school is filled with these illusionists!

  3. This is without question about a colleague of mine. Hailed as a ‘dynamic and engaging teacher’ by the head, he gestures effusively in every lesson, produces reams of coloured worksheets and spends a lot of time handing them out and going through them. He is called on endlessly to talk to us about his ‘unique teaching style’, and yet I still don’t know what it is that he does. I’ve sat in on several lessons now and really only learnt that the more arm waving and effusive pointing you do at the whiteboard, the better.

  4. Loved this article, the best so far. Better name than mine as well – I call them the cappucino froth teachers (all air, no taste, but looks good) or ‘all icing and no cake’. You forgot to say how amazing they are at self publicity.

  5. How right you are! Talking of ‘horse shoe shapes’, a head of department at the college where I work suddenly started insisting that every single class must be set out in this way, regardless of the topic or the type of lesson, just because one Ofsted Inspector had cited it as ‘good practice’. Yet another example of managers who no longer teach themselves, advocating formulaic methods dreamed up by so-called ‘experts’ and displaying their total lack of intelligence and understanding of pedagogy.

  6. Horseshoe shapes? Hmm…

    I don’t want to get bogged down in trivial things but if it works for you then surely you should use it.

    It works for me. Not all the time but it is an awful lot better than clusters of desks with children facing in all sorts of different directions.

    However, other than that, I quite agree with you (whilst quietly hoping that it is in my classroom that learning happens too).

  7. the trouble with the horseshoe is that u sometimes create the gools gallery because everyone can see everyone.

    it all boils down to classroom management, good school ethos and engangement at the end of the day.

    regardless of seating configuration.

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