Archive for May, 2017

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Are teachers filthy, rotten liars?

May 20, 2017

Another Twitter poll, and a result that surprised me. It actually came out of a conversation about SEND interventions and was used to defend interventions that had no evidence of effectiveness, but might work as placebos. I think that lying to kids, particularly kids with special needs, is not really on. I was surprised to see it justified with the appeal to the claim that deception was part and parcel of what we do. I didn’t refer back to that context with the poll, because I was more interested in the general principle. I was not expecting so many people to say “yes”.

The charitable interpretation is that a lot of the “yes” votes were basically honest people who have a very heightened sense of what it means to deceive and a willingness to consider “part and parcel” to refer to events that would not happen every day. Although the dictionary does say the word “deceive” means deliberately misleading somebody, particularly for personal gain, some people interpreted “deception” to include such things as teaching simplified models in science, or not letting your students know when you are unhappy. Teaching is often viewed as a performance, and some took that to mean a deception. Others seemed to think some types of encouragement were deception. Additionally, there are times when it might be right to lie to protect children (for instance to maintain confidentiality about another child), and although these might be exceptions perhaps people who are sensitive to these things see them as “part and parcel” of teaching rather than the exception to the rule.

All of these are fair enough, although it does concern me if they lead to teachers thinking it is okay to routinely lie, particularly when, as in the case of bogus SEND interventions, it is pretty close to a confidence trick. Another issue around lying is one I blogged about here when some hoax event (alien landing, murder, pencil case theft) is staged  in a primary school to prompt writing, something that has backfired a number of time when it has led to kids complaining about being scared

My least charitable interpretation of what is going on here is to remember all those teachers and managers who condemn the use of sanctions and  explicit rules to control behaviour, and instead talk of motivating and inspiring the kids. I wonder how often in practice this actually amounts to dishonest manipulation? If teachers are expecting to win kids over, rather than be an authority figure, could this not lead to teachers feeling they can say anything, true or not, to get them to go along with what teachers want them to do? The complaint that child directed education might actually mean subtle manipulation of children towards adult ends is one that was often made of Rousseau. The best expression of this idea is probably in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie where a manipulative teacher forms a destructive bond with a group of students. It worried me about how casually some teachers talked of deceiving kids in order to motivate them or give them confidence, as if we are meant to be controlling their feelings rather than their actions in school. I don’t think it is healthy if we feel guilty about punishing kids, or telling them what to, but perfectly comfortable with getting them to comply with our wishes through lying and manipulation.

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Why you shouldn’t complain about being patronised online

May 14, 2017

Tone Policing. The only motive is to end debate.

I’ve written before about tone policing – when people get annoyed at the way people speak on social media. The problem with tone policing is:

a) Often, particularly on Twitter, the tone exists only in the head of the person taking offence at it.

b) It distracts from the content of arguments.

One particularly common complaint is being patronised. Roughly speaking, you think you are being patronised when you deduce that somebody you are speaking to thinks you are an idiot.  Now, this may be a problem if it is real life and if it’s somebody you will have ongoing interactions with. But if you are arguing with a stranger on social media it’s really not worth complaining if you suspect they think you are an idiot, because nothing good can come from drawing attention to that.

This is because there are only 4 possibilities:

  1. You are not an idiot and they don’t think you are an idiot. In this case, you have nothing to complain about.
  2. You are not an idiot and they think you are an idiot. This may be annoying, but it means they are under-estimating you. This means that if, instead of taking offence, you continue the debate, you are likely to get the better of them. You will look good, they will look bad. Why stop that happening?
  3. You are an idiot and they don’t think you are an idiot. By complaining you have now drawn their attention to your idiocy. They are now more likely to think you are an idiot. You have made the problem worse.
  4. You are an idiot and they think you are an idiot. Now you’ve drawn everyone else’s attention to the fact.

Now it is an entirely different matter if they have said you are an idiot, or they have made an untrue claim that implies you are an idiot. You should object to being insulted or misrepresented. But if you try to convict them for the thought-crime of having a low opinion of you, then the best you can hope for is that you don’t prove them right.

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Teachers are divided by values, not just methods

May 13, 2017

A while back (which is my way of saying I always intended to reply to this, but somehow 6 months passed) I saw this post: Teaching is not two distinct theories. This is a lie promoted by the echo chamber of social media and thought it was a really clear statement of a wrong, but plausible, position that deserved a reply. (Except perhaps for the idea that the debate, which is well over 100 years old, is somehow centred on social media.)

The basic thesis of the post is a common one (although many who put it forward are less sincere than this author): Most teachers are above the debate between progressives and traditionalists.

It starts be describing the 2 approaches:

Group A (often called Traditionalists) – This group promote the fact that we should just give knowledge to our students. In their world the teacher is the font of all knowledge and their job is to pass this to the kids and their lessons are knowledge rich. Progress is kids knowing more stuff. According to them we need more academic rigour and less focus on skills. They don’t like discovery learning. This group is all about the subject.

Group B (often called Progressivists) – This group is all about the skills and the fun and the engagement. They want kids to know stuff but that isn’t their primary purpose. Instead they want to create engaging learning experiences where they learn life skills and lessons are often focused purely on getting them through the exam. They really like discovery learning. This group is less about the subject.

I think this is fair enough in most respects, although it is noticeable that both definitions, particularly the progressive one, are heavily weighted towards what teachers do, rather than what they believe. The post then goes on to argue that we can critique both approaches and instead do a bit of both. This is a really common approach for those trying to transcend the debate and comment on it from above. Often those who do this are blatantly progressive, and this seems like an excuse for not defending what they do, but I don’t think that this is the case here.

I do think that a number of people who claim to do a bit of both are actually bog standard progressives.

The critique of the two approaches then follows. Here is the critique of traditionalism.

Why is a purely Group A approach limited?

  • Knowledge is important but it is not the be all and end all of teaching.
  • How much ‘stuff’ do kids actually remember at the end of the year? My lesson is three hours out of fifty per fortnight. It isn’t possible for them to remember that much and I am good at my job (I think). This raises an elephant in the room – if they aren’t going to remember that stuff why should I focus purely on them remembering stuff?
  • Kids have to sit exams. If we don’t explicitly teach them skills and how to answer an exam question (whether we like it or not) they won’t do as well. And if they don’t get their grades we are affecting their university choices and job prospects.

The first point is a statement about values, but it is a very vague one. The other two points are actually utterly reliant on the traditionalist teacher not being good at being a traditionalist teacher. Why focus on knowledge if kids won’t remember it? The whole point of focusing on it is so that they do remember it. If they don’t: do it better. That’s not a problem with traditional aims, that’s a problem with not achieving them. Similarly with exams, the traditionalist case is that a focus on knowledge helps kids with their exams. No traditionalist will refuse to explicitly teach or practice exam technique (even if the author does insist on calling that “skills”), and actually traditionalists tend to be more positive about exams and tests.

Why is a purely Group B approach limited?

  • Making a model out of pipe cleaners is a laugh but what you taught them in an hour you could have just told them in five minutes.
  • A stop motion film is fun but where is the learning about the intricacies of your subject. Where is the grappling with the academic rigour of your subject?
  • Skills are needed but you cannot teach skills without knowledge. You have to know something to test your skills. It can’t therefore be all about skills.
  • Beating students with the exam stick takes out any fun or bits that are unique about your subject.

As you can imagine, I have more sympathy with this critique. But even more than the description of traditionalism, it is all about what the progressive teacher does, not what they believe.

This helps the author make the following argument:

What concerns me about the situation I have described above is that this is not what the majority of us do. In fact I have a suspicion that both Group A and B are the very loud but extreme minority of teachers. If you just teach like A or B I would also suggest that you don’t do a very good job. Teaching needs a bit of both A and B. Sometimes you need to just give them the facts, other times you need the kids on your side and creating an engaging learning activity that might be quite light hearted is needed.

My fear is that new teachers join social media and see the proponents of A or B who have a huge numbers of followers and think that therefore they should be like them and teach only like A or B. They shouldn’t. You need to be both A and B.

It is noticeable that until the last sentence, all of this is about what teachers do. It jars that the last sentence suddenly switches to what teachers should be. By focusing on what teachers do the author is able to describe their own week and claim:

…some lessons were more heavily weighted toward A, some were heavily B, most were a mixture of both. This is normal. In each scenario I planned for what is best for the kids. I did not let the very loud but extreme minority influence my planning, I used the technique that that led to the best learning.

The trouble with this is that by this point the debate has entirely ceased to be about values. I’m a hardcore traditionalist, and I might sometimes teach lessons that are entirely traditionalist, but overall I also use a mix. Group work, discussion, investigations, real-life problems, even word searches are not off limits, they just aren’t, in my opinion, techniques that often lead to the best learning.

The reason this doesn’t make me a “bit of both” is because these are educational philosophies, and the methods associated with them are only progressive and traditionalist in as much as they reflect underlying philosophies.

And this is why we struggle to be “a bit of both”. When we are in the classroom, we don’t ask “shall I be a bit progressive or a bit traditional” we think about what we want to achieve (which is informed by our philosophy) and we think about how best to achieve it (which is informed by our philosophy). Techniques are not incidental, but they vary a lot between subjects, (a traditionalist drama teacher would still do plenty of group work) and they are important only because of what they reveal about our beliefs.

When I say I am a traditionalist, it means I reject non-academic aims for education. It means that I believe learning knowledge improves the intellect more than anything else does. It means that I think children should be obedient. It means that I will pick methods because they maximise the acquisition of, and fluency in, knowledge. It also means that I favour explanation and practice but only because they are the best means to these ends.

The real challenge to this view of educational philosophies would not be the person who “does a bit of both”. A minute interrogating them about their beliefs would reveal which philosophy (if any) they follow, far quicker than any lesson observation would. The real challenge would be somebody who managed to espouse one set of values consistently (not just nod to them, insincerity is not difficult to explain) and yet somehow ended up using techniques that are more in line with a different philosophy and justifying it. Fortunately, I’m yet to meet anybody like that.

 

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How Educational Progressives are still trying to silence those who disagree

May 9, 2017

No doubt what follows will be interpreted as an “attack” on the individuals I quote here. However,this post refers only to the public behaviour of influential individuals and I have removed one name at the request of the individual involved. I am bringing attention to this because a lot of education bloggers read this blog, and I think it’s fair to let them know what they can expect if they dare challenge progressives on social media. No doubt there are those who will point out that not all progressives behave this way, so I’ll acknowledge that now.

I’ve become used to being able to speak freely on social media. I think many other traditionalists have as well. It is easy to forget that many still have to hide their identities. It is easy to forget that if you are new to social media and you challenge the progressive line, (particularly if you are a primary teacher, a woman, or new to teaching), progressives will try to silence you.

There was an example of this, just this weekend.  A (newish) blogger, called Teaching Newbie, had visited a school with a No Excuses discipline system and had been amazed at how well it worked. In a blog post she wrote:

On Twitter, I have encountered noted educationalists such as Sue Cowley and Debra Kidd, at every opportunity sneering at and denigrating the no excuses, high expectations approach espoused by [the school]. And all the while, the most disadvantaged children in the country continue to suffer. Just stop, people, stop! There is a better way. Swallow your pride and open your eyes to the evidence that is right before you, if only you would see it. Discipline works. No excuses works. A focus on knowledge works. Explicit teaching works. Drills and tests work. And no, it does not kill off creativity or oppress children. Quite the opposite.

Rhetorical, and dramatic, but a fair enough comment. Sue Cowley wrote a blogpost that did little more than ridicule Nick Gibb for talking about “no excuses methods” and she has made her opposition to “no excuses” clear on Twitter:

Debra Kidd had been far ruder, writing a post on “no excuses” entitled “Entirely Without Compassion“.

So these high profile ex-teachers have their opinions; Teaching Newbie had a different opinion. People should be allowed to express their disagreement, wouldn’t you say?

Well apparently not, according to the writer of this comment claiming to be Sue Cowley (and this tweet would indicate it was her).

This is odd. You don’t have to be a lawyer to know that it’s hard to libel somebody if what you say about them is demonstrably true, and does nothing to damage their reputation. Disagreeing with progressives is not actually punishable by law. Teaching Newbie was considerate enough to remove the names, but not the post.

This was not enough for Progressive edu-Twitter. Lots of people stepped in to attack Teaching Newbie there. I won’t repeat anything from “the Progressive Trolls“, those accounts that are largely dedicated to abusing traditionalists on twitter, but as you can imagine, they were offensive.

As well as the trolls, at least one progressive, a PGCE tutor whose name I have blanked out in red., supported the idea that disagreeing with named progressives about views they had expressed in public was some kind of libel.

 

 

When warning of “danger” did not silence Teaching Newbie, this particular progressive found another way to silence Teaching Newbie. They searched through her blog for what she had written about life at the school where she works as an LSA and found comments that they would not have made about a named school:

 

Then they claimed Teaching Newbie could be identified:

Although it is unlikely that Teaching Newbie has been identified, this was too much for her to risk, and she deleted her Twitter account and blog. She confirmed by email that it was this implied threat to out her to her employers that had caused her to do so.

I share this as a warning. If you are blogging about teaching make sure you cannot be identified if you are describing what actually happens in your school. If you are challenging any prominent progressives, expect them to try and intimidate you and expect other progressives to support them, no matter how unreasonable their behaviour is. People will claim that disagreeing with progressives on social media, or describing what actually happens in schools, is unprofessional and that action could be taken against you. Be careful. Progressives did not gain the influence they have over education through open debate, but by making it professionally difficult to challenge them. Social media has opened up the debate, and they do not like it. You may think your little blog or a few tweets won’t bother anybody, but if they see a chance to silence you, they will take it.

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5 blogposts about 5 things

May 7, 2017

For some reason bloggers have started writing posts that list 5 things this weekend. So here’s my list of 5 blogposts that do that.

1) 5 principles of education by @greg_ashman

2) Five Things I Wish I knew When I started Teaching by @C_Hendrick

3) The 5 worst education arguments by graphics by @JamesTheo

4) Practice vs. talent: Five principles for effective teaching by @DavidDidau

5) 5 education ideas applied to alternative contexts by @greg_ashman

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Is obedience dangerous? Part 2

May 7, 2017

In part 1, I considered whether obedience endangered children. In this post, I will consider the down sides of disobedience.

I believe children are in more danger of being abused by each other than by their teachers. Teachers are subject to CRB checks and could be prosecuted and fired if they act inappropriately. Kids have far fewer constraints on abusive behaviour. This blogpost describes what is the daily reality for some girls in some schools:

…in the school I now teach at, sexual assault has almost become part of the furniture. The Head has talked about how much of a problem it is. He sent some staff on a training day about it. He’s kept boys back after assembly and given them a bollocking. He’s kept girls back after assembly and told them he’s given the boys a bollocking. It hasn’t really helped. It’s a culture. A culture takes a lot more than an assembly to change.

It’s as if this whole issue is a pesky mosquito buzzing round his head, that he limply swats at occasionally when it bothers him too much.

When SLT talk about how good a school we are, how we’re aiming for an Outstanding Ofsted next year, how great our progress stats are, I want to shake them and say “how can you apply positive adjectives to a school where girls are just resigned to being felt up now and again? Where pupils with police reprimands and warnings for assaulting girls walk the corridors alongside the victims? Where your own pupil voice survey says that the majority of pupils do not feel safe?”

If we want to protect kids from abuse, then the first priority has to be to protect them from each other. Teacher authority is a help, not a hindrance here. Reducing the authority of adults, does not protect children, it leaves them at the mercy of the mob. Arendt described this situation decades ago:

… there exist a child’s world and a society formed among children that are autonomous and must insofar as possible be left to them to govern. Adults are only there to help with this government. The authority that tells the individual child what to do and what not to do rests with the child group itself–and this produces, among other consequences, a situation in which the adult stands helpless before the individual child and out of contact with him. He can only tell him to do what he likes and then prevent the worst from happening. The real and normal relations between children and adults, arising from the fact that people of all ages are always simultaneously together in the world, are thus broken off. And so it is of the essence of this first basic assumption that it takes into account only the group and not the individual child.

As for the child in the group, he is of course rather worse off than before. For the authority of a group, even a child group, is always considerably stronger and more tyrannical than the severest authority of an individual person can ever be. If one looks at it from the standpoint of the individual child, his chances to rebel or to do anything on his own hook are practically nil; he no longer finds himself in a very unequal contest with a person who has, to be sure, absolute superiority over him but in contest with whom he can nevertheless count on the solidarity of other children, that is, of his own kind; rather he is in the position, hopeless by definition, of a minority of one confronted by the absolute majority of all the others. There are very few grown people who can endure such a situation, even when it is not supported by external means of compulsion; children are simply and utterly incapable of it.

Therefore by being emancipated from the authority of adults the child has not been freed but has been subjected to a much more terrifying and truly tyrannical authority, the tyranny of the majority. In any case the result is that the children have been so to speak banished from the world of grown-ups. They are either thrown back upon themselves or handed over to the tyranny of their own group, against which, because of its numerical superiority, they cannot rebel, with which, because they are children, they cannot reason, and out of which they cannot flee to any other world because the world of adults is barred to them. The reaction of the children to this pressure tends to be either conformism or juvenile delinquency, and is frequently a mixture of both.

From The Crisis Of Education, in Between Past and Future” by Hannah Arendt

As well as the harm disobedient children can do to each other, how often do we give instructions in order to keep students safe? It is very easy to focus on adults who harm children and forget that adult authority protects children from themselves. It is easy to find examples where disobedience has harmed children. The following news stories that I found for a blogpost a few years ago all involve students being killed or maimed in circumstances where students disobeyed teachers:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/1456897.stm

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/north_yorkshire/4413357.stm

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/west_yorkshire/3004667.stm

So, it is not simply the case that obedience endangers kids, it also protects them, from each other and from their own reckless behaviour. Which risk is greater? The risk that children will be harmed by their teachers because of their obedience, or the risk that children will come to harm where their teachers cannot control them? I guess it comes down to your view of teachers. If you trust teachers to protect children, you assume teachers will use their authority to protect their students. If you think teachers don’t care about children, then you assume teachers will use their authority to harm their students.

I trust teachers. Don’t you?

 

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Is obedience dangerous? Part 1

May 6, 2017

A few months ago there were a couple of blogposts trying to link obedience with child abuse.

One post associated child abuse and obedience, implicitly, using an abuser as a model of adult authority:

I do not want every child to be obedient. In fact I would question what kind of society we would have if obedience reigned supreme? Let’s all obey Trump – no questions asked, in fact lets imagine he is never opposed? This is a pretty dangerous road to travel but I think it has much to explore….

I have an issue with the way obedience can used to get children to be compliant.

When I worked in Tower Hamlets (more than 15 years ago) a child protection discloser came in. Four very nervous children disclosed to a Learning Mentor that they had been beaten the night before, at a evening Koran reading class. As deputy I spoke to one boy who was said to have got the worst of it. I knew him well, he was in my class for a second year. He had very severe eczema. The children had told us how they were beaten in certain places. K had been beaten on his feet, and when I spoke to him his shoes were damp with blood. He slowly and painfully took off his socks at my request. His eczema inflamed and bleeding. He could hardly walk and yet he did, even though the pain was terrible. He was 10 years old.

By the end of the day twenty two boys had come forward to say they had received beatings and humiliations from a ‘pop up’ reading school on the local estate. Some only once but a few were constantly hurt. One child had keys held against his face whilst the so-called teacher karate kicked them and another had to crouch in the corner of the room with a broom handle slid over his neck and between his elbows… He would often have pig or cow written in chalk across his shaved head. He had special educational needs and was a complex boy.

The other post made the point more explicitly:

One of the most important lessons I teach in the school year is the one that tells the pupils that they should not do what an adult tells them to do….

… The lesson in question is on ‘Protective Behaviours’, i.e. protecting oneself from being abused…

That’s the one in which they learn to recognise that adults do not have absolute authority over them and that they have a right to say ‘no’ if what they are being asked to do is wrong. Famously, the pupils of [unnamed but easily identified school] would pick up someone’s grape off the floor, without argument or complaint. Whilst the total authority of the teachers in this school appears to be underpinned by kindness and concern – a benevolent dictatorship, if you will – administrations and contexts change. Would they comply if it were something considerably less pleasant? If it were someone considerably less pleasant?

So there you have it, if you try to ensure that children follow their teacher’s instructions, you might be enabling abuse. And at the time these posts went up some of the “Progressive Trolls” seemed okay with claiming the teachers they targeted online committed “emotional abuse” by enforcing rules.

Now, a lot could be said about those who see strong discipline as being on a continuum with child abuse. This has been a part of progressive rhetoric since, at least, the days of A.S.Neill’s Summerhill, perhaps ironically given that the behaviour of teachers at Summerhill (such as exposing themselves to teach anatomy or encouraging young children to masturbate in order to cure their neuroses) would now be seen as abuse. One might have thought that the abolition of corporal punishment, and its replacement with being told to wait in a room, might have put an end to this rhetoric. But now it seems to be that the mere aspiration of getting kids to follow the rules that is linked to abuse.

I think the claims that obedience enables abuse confuses legitimate authority with arbitrary power. Belief in obedience is not belief in the use of adult power according to whim. When traditionalists talk about obedience, it is firstly, obedience to the rules. Now unless a school has a rule that says child abuse should take place or be kept secret, this is unlikely to encourage abuse. Secondly, where traditionalists talk about obedience to adult authority, it is talking about the legitimate authority of adults with responsibility for children. If a teacher is not acting legitimately, then they do not have that authority. I would argue that a “no excuses” school, with its clear rules and routines actually does more to draw boundaries around teachers’ authority, than the “excuses” school, where the rules and sanctions are made up according to the whim and status of the teacher, and emotional manipulation is considered preferable to the threat of punishment. What is more likely to lead to abuse? Punishing a child for not doing their homework or winning over a child’s personal loyalty through special praise, attention and affection?

I’m not sure why the model of the abuser here is one of an authoritative adult who tells compliant kids what to do. How often do the cases of abuse involving teachers we see in the press involve the teacher who diminishes, rather than exploits, adult authority? How many cases of child abuse in schools, involve teachers acting as if their students were able to consent to sex, rather than accepting it was the teacher’s responsibility not to sleep with their students? Do you really think that the adult who befriends children and treats them as an equal is less likely to be an abuser than the adult who takes responsibility for children and sets firm boundaries?

In fact, it seems to me that “no excuses” discipline protects, rather than endangers kids. I will explore this further in part 2.

Update 8/5/2017

There were some complaints on Twitter  about my reference to teachers at Summerhill in the first part of the 20th century “exposing themselves to teach anatomy”. Apparently this was a very serious allegation to have made. Just to clarify, I did not mean to imply this was part of the curriculum. I was referring to a claim the school’s head made about teachers (including himself) exposing themselves to address children’s “curiosity”. I had charitably assumed it was curiosity about anatomy, and that, bizarre and inappropriate as it was, this behaviour was meant to be educational. I apologise for any upset this assumption caused and next time will simply assume they were all just sick perverts.

 

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