Archive for February, 2018


Born Bad

February 24, 2018

The dominant model of student behaviour used by educational progressives (and therefore by the education system in England which still takes its assumptions from educational progressivism) is therapeutic. If a child is badly behaved, then this is a symptom of some other problem. The correct response is to diagnose the problem and resolve it. The problems tend to be:

  • the teacher;
  • society;
  • SEND.

This has led to a denial of two key factors in behaviour:

  1. Social influences. The peer group and the culture of a school are absolutely key to a child’s decision to misbehave. Put the same child in a different class or a different school, and you would see radically different behaviour, even if somehow they still had the same teacher, the same SEND and the same external society.
  2. Human agency. Badly behaved children are assumed to have very little agency. Their choices are a response to either internal or external circumstances. They are considered to be perpetually not guilty due to diminished responsibility. Effectively, if a child is badly behaved, they must be insane and need treatment for their insanity.

This latter point is particularly bizarre. When kids see an adult won’t hold them responsible for their actions then they will exploit it ruthlessly. Nothing undermines a kid’s efforts to improve their behaviour than being told they aren’t responsible for it. Schools put a lot of resources into curing badly behaved kids of their “underlying problems” (often these are called “unmet needs” and the bad behaviour is described as “communicating unmet needs”). My experience is that these resources are largely wasted. I have known so many children who have been subjected to “intervention” to help their behaviour on this basis, and yet I cannot think of one child who was “cured” and can think of several whose behaviour became worse as a result. Children do improve their behaviour. Sometimes they just mature; sometimes they realise the consequences of continued misbehaviour; sometimes their peer or family group changes and that’s enough. Rarely does any child’s behaviour improve because their “unmet needs” are identified solely from their behaviour and cured. Beyond asking “what can I do to help you behave?” very little useful information is gained from the search for unmet needs, because while a whole host of factors may affect behaviour, very little behaviour has one over-riding, treatable cause.

So why are progressives so convinced of the therapeutic approach to behaviour management? The most obvious explanation is that it is in accord with their beliefs about human nature. There is a romantic, utopian tradition in both liberalism and socialism, that sees human beings as natural saints who are corrupted by society. Once the right institutions exist, or the wrong ones are destroyed, we will reach the promised land. In this account, no child could be motivated to do something bad without some external influence.

This is in contrast to a conservative account of human nature. In this account, none of us are natural saints. We all feel the temptation to do wrong and we all give into it from time to time. We all do things that we know are wrong and no external agent has encouraged us to do. Even toddlers who have never experienced violence, may decide to shove another child out of the way. No crime that we can imagine is so alien to human nature that nobody has ever tried to commit it. There is darkness and cruelty in human nature.

This is one of those “debates” where one account is obviously true. We are blatantly not natural saints. We do have selfish impulses we have to learn to control. We do suffer from pride and laziness. We do get angry when we shouldn’t. We don’t always consider others as much as we should. Nobody ever had to make us this way; it’s who we are and anyone claiming to be above such impulses would be mocked for their self-righteousness. It’s almost impossible to see where anyone could even begin if one wanted to make a case for our natural moral perfection.

So what can be done to continue a debate where one position is obviously wrong and the evidence that it is wrong is so abundant that it would be impossible to know where to start if somebody asked for it?

There are two main strategies for those who deny human nature: the ad hominem and the straw man.

The ad hominem argument is to point out that belief in our fallen nature is part of Christianity, part of the doctrine of original sin, and therefore, anyone who believes in it, must believe in it on that basis. It has a certain plausibility. I’m sure people who think the state can remake human nature from scratch are less likely to be religious than those of us who worry every day they might fall into temptation. But, of course, no proposition can be disproved by a statement about who believes it and being a Christian belief doesn’t make something inherently false, particularly if it’s obviously true. As G.K.Chesterton said, original sin is “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved”. Moreover, do atheists always adhere to the romantic view of human nature? Probably the most pessimistic statement about human nature I can think of (far more pessimistic than my beliefs) comes from arch-atheist Richard Dawkins in the Selfish Gene:

“Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.”

He later conceded that we do have more of a natural tendency to altruism than he admitted here, but there is no possibility that he had somehow become temporarily religious when he wrote the claim I quoted.

The other argument, is the straw man. The view that our worst impulses are not necessarily unnatural, can be misrepresented as the view that our natural impulses are only our worst impulses. When I say we are “born bad”, I mean we are born with some bad impulses. We cannot blame our inclination to do wrong only on what has happened to us since birth. It is not a claim that nothing good in our natures is there from birth. It is not a claim that children have no good instincts. However, to those who want to misrepresent me, then what I am saying is that children deserve to be treated as if they are just plain evil. I never cease to be amazed that when I discuss the flawed nature of all human beings, including myself, people will paraphrase whatever I say as referring only to kids and then use it as evidence that I hate children. Of course, I don’t think children are exceptions to human nature, to say otherwise would be to treat them as not actually human. But nobody is under any obligation to believe children are natural saints who do not need boundaries or guidance in order to do the right thing.

If anyone has an argument that we are all natural born saints, that doesn’t consist of pointing and shouting “you hate children”, I’d be grateful to hear it. Until then, I will continue to believe that we are “born bad” in as much as human nature is not completely fluffy and that we should all strive for our own moral improvement.


Don’t let @BAMEedNetwork shame your education event

February 17, 2018

Last week I wrote about how progressives use race to smear education events. I noticed how certain events are singled out for criticism for not having enough ethnic minority speakers on every single panel, while others are not commented on at all even when they advertise a completely white line up.

Most of the response was what you might expect. People claimed the events I mentioned were unrepresentative, or that there were special circumstances, but then couldn’t come up with any counter-examples. People denied the debate between progressives and traditionalists, or refused to acknowledge that some events were progressive dominated while others had a range of viewpoints. People claimed that all events were national events, and, therefore, anybody who took account of where events were held, was defending racism. Nobody gave any evidence that speakers, who often travel at their own expense, will agree to travel anywhere in the country without any regard to time and money. Add to that the ad hominem comments about me and the people who took offence about statements of facts, and you get the picture.

However, one thing that came up was that there was more co-ordination to one of the Twitter shamings than I realised. I later updated my post to include it, but I hadn’t noticed one of the shamings began with a tweet saying:

Diversity klaxon going wild there. Need some help? #BAMEed

This was a signal for people to make complaints and it came from one of the founders of the “BAMEed” group (@BAMEedNetwork). Another one of their leaders described what the group does in response to my questions:

The aim is to call out lack of diversity where it is seen. … If there was a system to ensure all event organisers checklist diversity objectives and balance at events trust me I would encourage it… [we] Just call out any event that has been organised without due respect to the various educators we have… It is public as it on Twitter. It is shaming as those who organise know that they should be doing better on representation. [The] Standard is as arbitrary as inclusion itself. … NRocks, SRocks, TEDxNorwich have actively asked for help with diversity speakers. Have spoken with EducationFest, OxfordshireHeads, ASE after they responded to challenge… Some such as the ASE were called out publicly and responded well. We work with them to improve… I say ‘Hey event organiser! Would be great if your event had the representation of BAME that we have nationally. Would really be good for educators to get more voices. Having trouble finding some? I can help.’

So there is a group that publicly shames… sorry… “calls out” some education events (but not others) for not having the right ethnic balance of speakers according to their own arbitrary standard. It also helps conferences by advising on speakers. Now, there are issues with the fairness of this that arise from the last post. However, there is a bigger concern here. Who are BAMEed to police education events in this way?

Well it turns out that of the 4 founders of BAMEed:

  • One has done work for Leadership Matters a group who advise schools. She explained that it was unpaid writing for their website, but until challenged on it had not been forthcoming about this even when I asked “…can you say directly that you do not work for any consultancy company?”.
  • One works for Challenge Partners, a group that organises education events and advises schools, and promises on their website to provide opportunities to “access the expertise of practitioners and external consultants”. While the debate over the shamings was happening, she advertised the Challenge Partners Conference with the words “Think Festival of Education but far more useful practically!” The Festival of Education, clearly identified here as a rival, was one of the events that has been Twitter shamed over diversity with what seemed like no real justification at all.
  • One works as a “Consultant/Trainer” and according to his website “travels offering training and CPD to educational institutions”.
  • One is the director of ThinkSimple Ltd, a consultancy firm which “consists of a team of experienced educators and trainers who use the philosophy of 21st century learning to support schools and businesses to help redefine a more efficient and successful way of working.”

Now, consultants have a huge interest in speaking at conferences. It is somewhere school leaders will see them and consider hiring them. Nobody looking for a fair judge of education events would ever consider people who work with; for, or as consultants as anything other than a vested interest. I’m not alleging deliberate corruption, nor a conspiracy, but observing the fact that this group has a significant conflict of interest when it comes to policing conferences online, and in advising conferences on who to invite to speak. They even admitted that some of the events they sought to advise actually paid speakers.

Even if it was without conflicts of interest, trying to enforce an arbitrary standard of diversity, through the means of Twitter shaming is morally dubious. As my last post pointed out, there is reason to doubt the neutrality of these campaigns and several people from ethnic minorities involved in education raised the concern that the group did not speak for them or their interests. But now that it has emerged that the shamings are being organised by people who have significant conflicts of interest regarding who gets to speak at education events and how those events are perceived online, it’s time to call on them to stop it. The use of social media to police and publicly shame education events, particularly those organised by unpaid volunteers, needs to end now.


Using Race To Smear Education Events

February 10, 2018

There was an education event in June last year in Berkshire. About 7% of people in Berkshire are Asian, and about 2% are black.

This was posted on Twitter about one of the panels.

Here are some of the comments made about this panel on Twitter.

I can’t help but notice the lack of racial diversity. Is it fair to say many voices will be present, or just the majority group’s?

[when asked about the numbers] I think when we play numbers games it only serves to further marginalized non-majority groups.

[in response to an Asian woman saying she was happy with the panel] this is an anecdotal argument that ignores the larger issue of non-majority populations being consistently underrepresented.

If the panel has no minority representation, it does concern me (despite the rest of the program)

Also worth considering the considerable evidence that diverse constituency of a group produces more effective outcomes (any location)

A risk of tokenism if organisers introduce diversity ‘for show’, sure. That’s why organisations do well to self review at all levels  a telling argument is tendency to perform better without echo chamber repetition typical of dominant monoculture group interactions

Not about representation it’s about power. We should all be willing to consider our work & how power distributed.

There was an education event in Warwickshire in July last year. Less than 5% of people in Warwickshire are Asian. Less than 1% are black. A flyer showing some of the speakers was posted to Twitter.

Here are some of the comments made about the event on Twitter (either responding to that list or to a panel at the event):

Diversity klaxon going wild there. Need some help? #BAMEed

Where you at @BAMEedNetwork ? Represent !!!

and an all-white panel at that…#BAMEed can help next time

How about more diversity in your speaker list?

Visible diversity and diversity are both items which need consideration. The locality of an event is irrelevant.

Isn’t the baseline [for] diversity in the profession? So 1 in 18 speakers wouldn’t be visible/invisible diversity.

There was an education event in Leeds in October. The Leeds Urban Sub Division is more than 10% Asian and more than 5% black.

A flyer showing some of the speakers was posted to Twitter.

I cannot find one single tweet commenting on a lack of diversity in this list.

Statistically this seems odd. Why are white people on one panel in Berkshire or Warwickshire, or white people (and one Asian) in Warwickshire seen as unrepresentative but white speakers in a multicultural city like Leeds not even commented on?

The most plausible answer is that the first two events had plenty of speakers who were ordinary classrooms teachers, and a range of progressive and traditionalist views on education. The Leeds event appears to be very progressive, with no traditionalist speakers and all the names I recognise belong to consultants and educationalists. It’s almost as if “diversity policing” on social media, where people harass organisers of education events for not having enough diversity in their speakers, is actually about trying to silence traditionalists and/or teachers and nothing about diversity at all.

Update 22/4/2018: 

Yesterday an event about Early Years education took place in London, where every speaker was white. One of the speakers was one of the people I quoted above as joining in with complaints about a single panel at an event in Berkshire not being diverse enough, the one who said:

Also worth considering the considerable evidence that diverse constituency of a group produces more effective outcomes (any location)

A risk of tokenism if organisers introduce diversity ‘for show’, sure. That’s why organisations do well to self review at all levels  a telling argument is tendency to perform better without echo chamber repetition typical of dominant monoculture group interactions

Odd that they didn’t feel the need to be part of a similarly public denunciation for an event where they were invited to speak.


Teacher Autonomy Part 2

February 4, 2018

Yesterday I blogged about the background to the issue of teacher autonomy and the dilemma facing traditionalists who, when progressives were in control, argued for autonomy, but now see it used to justify bad practice.

Although I still tend to favour teachers’ freedom to make their own judgements, I think what is needed is not a blanket declaration that teachers can do what they like, but rather it is important to follow a number of principles for when autonomy can or cannot be restricted. In particular, it should always be remembered that there is both positive and negative variance from any given model of teaching, and restrictions on autonomy should remove negative variance but protect positive variance. I think these principles will help with this.

Principle 1: Outcomes must be considered before processes. There is no point reducing teacher autonomy where teachers are already making decisions that result in desired outcomes. In practice this means that where teachers get good results, they should be left alone, or at least given only informal guidance. Where teachers are getting poor results, managers can be less respectful of autonomy.

Principle 2: Schools should be upfront about what they want. This is difficult when teachers are scarce, and schools would rather have a teacher who doesn’t fit the ethos of the school, than no teacher at all. However, there is nothing more likely to drive out good teachers than telling them once they’ve signed the contract how they are now expected to teach, having failed to mention it during the interview process. In particular, if you give somebody a job after seeing them teach in a particular way, then you’d better not tell them it is the wrong way to teach once they start working for you. A clear statement of what you want may reduce the number of applications for a position, but it will increase the chances that those you do appoint will be happy and be retained over time.

Principle 3: If you can’t write down clearly, concisely and objectively what you want, you have no right to ask for it. One of the worst features of the days of excessive observations and lesson gradings, was the feeling that you had to play a game whereby you had to guess what your managers wanted to see and, just to make it even worse, this would change between observations. Very many teachers can tell you horror stories of having changed their teaching style to meet what their last observer wanted, only to be told that this is no longer what was wanted.

Principle 4: The best justification for restricting autonomy is where a teacher’s behaviour will undermine colleagues. When expectations of effort or behaviour are lowered in one classroom, it makes it harder for everyone else. In secondary schools, whatever is normal becomes acceptable. If kids have even one lesson a week where rules are not enforced, then they will test every new teacher they have to see which rules they will enforce. It is consistency, not flexibility, that is vital for effective whole school discipline. Discipline policies should be clear and universal and no teacher should suffer for following them to the letter. Nothing has been more obvious from my experience of teaching in schools than the fact that in good schools teachers are told “you must enforce the rules” and in bad schools they are told “you are at fault for enforcing that rule”.

Principle 5: Don’t take the piss. Any kind of restriction on teacher autonomy can be misused to bully, undermine or force people out. If you are worried that the teachers will leave or go off with stress as a result of enforcement of standards then you should reconsider how standards are enforced. The nightmare scenario, for both school and teacher, is where a teacher is criticised for behaviour that is actually a result of the stress they have been put under by having their behaviour scrutinised. If teachers seem panicked, angry or disorganised when you observe them, then there is a strong possibility that you are not seeing what they are usually like. They will not improve if you point this out, they will get worse or they will leave.

Please notice that at no point here have I said “you can restrict autonomy where the evidence shows the best way to teach”. This is fast becoming the go-to straw man for critics of traditionalism, i.e. that we all believe that where evidence exists, then teachers must be compelled to follow it. Evidence does not overrule debate; it informs it.  If we were to enforce positions justified by evidence, then we’d soon be enforcing practices justified by some pretty shoddy evidence. First and foremost evidence should be used to persuade not to compel.

However, when you have a debate about methods and people say, “We do that anyway.”, or “Yes, I do that as part of a mix of methods.” then they lose the right to later complain that they are being forced to do it. The obvious example of this is over the phonics check. In that case, phonics denialists claimed for years that they were teaching phonics, they just differed about the best type of phonics, or how to mix phonics with other methods. Then a test was introduced that tested whether kids had learned phonics and they immediately complained that their kids wouldn’t pass it and it was forcing them to teach phonics. Nobody can complain that their autonomy has been harmed by being exposed as a fraud. Teachers should have autonomy because they can be trusted, and nobody’s autonomy stretches to a right to lie about what they are doing.

Finally, and perhaps most controversially, please note that I have not argued against accountability for outcomes. This is not because this is always fair and reasonable, but because I don’t consider it to be an issue of autonomy. We should welcome being told what outcomes we are meant to achieve, if they are reasonable. Having agreed outcomes should improve our autonomy, if the first principle above is being followed. Of course, we could probably discuss for hours all the times accountability for outcomes hasn’t been reasonable, but it is not a bad thing a priori.


Teacher Autonomy Part 1

February 3, 2018

When I first started blogging, and for several years afterwards, teachers were being forced to teach in a way that, if you were familiar with the history of educational thought, could only be described as “progressive”. Skills were more important than knowledge; discovery was more important than explanation; inclusion was more important than high expectations, and group work was more important than written work. The methods of enforcement also became more draconian at the same time. TLRs replaced responsibility points, meaning that if you wanted promotion you were required to manage other people, even if that meant half of the teachers in some schools were managers checking up on the other half (and each other). Inspections became short visits focused on ensuring that managers were carrying out their own ongoing scrutiny of teachers, rather than a week long chance to inspect everybody. Performance management systems were introduced that meant almost all teachers were treated like trainees. Lesson observations and book scrutinies, often based around very prescriptive checklists, became common. Teachers lost their autonomy. This was a time when teachers were often grateful if they fell through the gaps in the system and ended up working in a school, department or key stage where there was little management oversight, particularly if one wanted to teach in a more traditional way.  Many schools still scrutinise teaching, and criticise traditional teaching, even now, although it is fair to say that those of us who want to teach in a more traditional way have considerably more options available now than we did then.

At the same time as educationalists and inspectors were dictating our educational philosophy, politicians were still interested in accountability. They wanted schools to be held responsible for their results, and this, in turn, led to school leaders monitoring results and attempting to hold teachers accountable for them.

There was a contradiction here. The philosopher Onora O’Neill described it when talking about accountability in the public sector more generally:

Traditionally, the public sector exercised control by process. We often call it bureaucratic process. The private sector allegedly exercised control by targets. When the target setting was imposed on the public sector, the process controls were not removed, hence the problem of having to be responsive to and responsible for two completely different sets of controls whose coincidence is not guaranteed.

Both ends and means were being dictated, even though the prescribed methods were often not the best way to reach the required ends. School leaders were telling teachers what to do and then blaming them for the results of doing it. One school I worked in could not keep a head of maths for more than a year at a time, because they would be appointed in order to blindly impose teaching methods which would lower results, then they would be forced out due to the poor results. This was replicated at other levels too, inspectors were telling schools what to do, then judging them for the results of doing it.

In recent years, neither government nor inspectors require schools to teach in those progressive ways (although unfortunately some managers still do). However, much of the bureaucracy created to enforce methods still exists. The fear has been raised that traditionalists, once the supporters of teacher autonomy in the face of a progressive orthodoxy, will now become the enemy of teacher autonomy, crushing the progressive enemy within and enforcing their own methods with equal certainty that they are supported by science and an objective view of what good teaching looks like. When raised by progressives, the fear is often less rational, with claims that under the traditionalist regime all lessons will be scripted, or that even the most basic elements of teaching and good relationships with students will be prohibited. My (unwise) initial reaction is to laugh at those who stood by or even actively enforced, progressive orthodoxy, now claiming that teachers should be free to teach however they like. Certainly some who attempt to whitewash their past deserve to be called out for their hypocrisy. However, there is a real and difficult point here about teacher autonomy. At the very least, even if one were happy to remove all opportunity for progressives to teach progressively, one should still have a real concern that any method of enforcement used by traditionalists now will one day be used against them, in much the same way as OFSTED and the National Strategies were subverted from within during the 2000s.

In my next post, I will discuss what restrictions on teacher autonomy are acceptable and what restrictions are not.

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