Nick Dennis' Blog

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

Tag: Guardian

And the beat goes on – The Guardian’s Secret Teacher

 In this school the beat of deceit was constant. The emphasis was not on teachers looking out for students, but rather on them protecting the school’s bank account – permission slip not included. Secret Teacher, The Guardian, 2nd August 2014

Reading the ‘Secret Teacher’ series in the Guardian always makes me feel sad and slightly frustrated. Sad because so many of the stories recount poor examples of leadership so that education in this country seems to be driven by incompetent leaders at all levels. I also feel frustration with the lack of context in the pieces due to the anonymity of the writer and the presentation of a universal problem when the writer is talking about their specific context.

I felt both and the ‘beat of deceit’ as I read this recent Secret Teacher piece on independent sector schooling because it perpetuated a great number of half-truths. The first was used in the  advertising of the story as ‘Profit v parents’. The piece itself recounts the experience of the writer in one independent school where they were told to ignore a student’s learning needs so that the school could keep the fees generated by the student. I don’t doubt this situation happened but the sentence ‘I also realised that an independent school, which couldn’t afford special education teachers but did have newly varnished floors, was not the right place for her’ suggested that this was a universal condition rather than a particular story. From my own experience, especially as the line manager for Learning Support in two independent schools, this is not the case especially because ‘Gifted and Talented’  also comes under the umbrella of Learning Support. Significant time and resource is used to help the students and this is one of the reasons why parents do send their children to schools in the independent sector.

The second ‘beat of deceit’ was the transformation of particular ‘difficult parents’ into an unreasonable whole. We ask more questions when we feel that people are not being authentic and truthful with us and if the condition of mistrust was prevalent in the school, then I don’t blame them being awkward. It is also worth remembering that even if we disagree with parents,  the reason why some appear difficult is because they want the best for their child. The job of a good school and good leadership is to remind parents that we also want the best for their child and with our collective experience of raising and educating hundreds if not thousands of children, we have a lot to bring to the discussion. It is only by working together can we effectively support the child and as I always add in such discussions (in both sectors) that one of the reasons why they selected the school over other places is because they thought it was a good place for their child. Being honest about the child’s learning needs helps the school and the parents make the right choice for the child.

The piece also raised again the issue of anonymous blogging and the tension at the heart of it. Writing anonymously does afford the writer to speak out against a powerful opponent without fear of reprisal (legal or loss of job) yet it also allows trolling, the perpetuation of half-truths and a lack human recognition. In a world already coloured by stereotypes, the piece’s pretence to universality is disappointing. By pushing the universal strand and reducing complexity, the ‘beat of deceit’ continues and allows others to march along without question.

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‘Stay on the f**king bus’

I originally came across the ‘Helsinki Bus Station Theory’ earlier this year and was struck by a number of key ideas from Arno Minkkinen’s commencement speech. Rather than summarise it myself, I’ll use Oliver Burkeman’s version from the Guardian:

There are two dozen platforms, Minkkinen explains, from each of which several different bus lines depart. Thereafter, for a kilometre or more, all the lines leaving from any one platform take the same route out of the city, making identical stops. “Each bus stop represents one year in the life of a photographer,” Minkkinen says. You pick a career direction – maybe you focus on making platinum prints of nudes – and set off. Three stops later, you’ve got a nascent body of work. “You take those three years of work on the nude to [a gallery], and the curator asks if you are familiar with the nudes of Irving Penn.” Penn’s bus, it turns out, was on the same route. Annoyed to have been following someone else’s path, “you hop off the bus, grab a cab… and head straight back to the bus station, looking for another platform”. Three years later, something similar happens. “This goes on all your creative life: always showing new work, always being compared to others.” What’s the answer? “It’s simple. Stay on the bus. Stay on the fucking bus.”

What hooked me at the time, and still does, is its relevance to teaching by challenging what has become a maxim and revealing a proclivity towards the ‘new’ that can be detrimental to doing great work with students and colleagues. The precept it challenges is that feedback is useful. With the work of Hattie, Berger (and many others before) now becoming a normal part of discourse when discussing education and professional development for teachers,  it seems that sometimes we forget to explain that it is the quality of the feedback that matters, especially in a world of RTs, ‘Likes’ and ‘Favourites’.  The kind of feedback we wish for our students can be missed or in extreme cases replaced by  these tiny affirmations.  As useful and helpful as these comments may be in certain contexts, they can represent feedback of the most tenuous kind (I often think about the hopefuls in televised singing contests when they are faced with the unvarnished feedback that they are not as good as they have been led to believe by family/friends in their desire to be supportive). Consequently, emboldened by these recommendations, the blogs/writing/books/talks proliferate. For every instance of the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ there  lurks the spectre of ‘groupthink’.

According to Burkeman, the second aspect the metaphor illustrates is our propensity to ‘fetishise originality’. In education, this may be a new turn of phrase, a new technology, a new blog post or even a new book. The cost of chasing these new ideas, essentially taking the taxi back to the station and taking another bus, means that you will delay your progress in becoming the great, effective educator you hope to be. I was reminded of the consequences of keeping to the same route when I saw the project Dale Banham and Russell Hall are leading using Hattie’s work at the Schools History Project conference in July. Five years on after I was first introduced to the book by Dale, he is still grappling with the ideas to the benefit of  his students and his school.

I was also reminded of deliberate and thoughtful work when the Head of Boys, Chris Nicholls, retired at the end of term. I’ve already written about him in a previous post and I don’t want to embarrass him any more although I think the picture below captures some of the depth of feeling the students had for him on his final day after 38 years at one school.

Goodbye, Mr Nicholls

Goodbye, Mr Nicholls

I’m not suggesting that absorbing new ideas and ways of looking at things is wrong. They are vital for development and are essential for finding your own way yet they should be tempered by the realisation that there are no quick fixes or slogans that substantively lead to progress. Minkkinen writes:

The buses that move out of Helsinki stay on the same line but only for a while, maybe a kilometer or two. Then they begin to separate, each number heading off to its own unique destination. Bus 33 suddenly goes north, bus 19 southwest. For a time maybe 21 and 71 dovetail one another but soon they split off as well, Irving Penn is headed elsewhere. It’s the separation that makes all the difference, and once you start to see that difference in your work from the work you so admire (that’s why you chose that platform after all), it’s time to look for your breakthrough.

The journey to becoming a great educator is hard and can be frustrating. However, by following Minkkinen’s exhortation to ‘stay on the fucking bus’, working hard, being reflective and possessing the courage of your convictions, which motivated you to start the journey in the first place, you may just become the great teacher you hope to be.

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‘Standing in the light’

Confused road signs

Confusion

One of my colleagues pointed me in the direction of Martin Kettle’s article in the Guardian about the paucity of History teaching in schools. Kettle argues that because History teaching is limited, the English (whatever the term means) are cut off from a sense of self-respect. The article centres around the experience of his son not knowing anything about the English Civil Wars as an adult and that this is scandalous because ‘everyone in the country ought to know about it’. I recommend you read the rest of the article as it is indicative of the ambivalence and confusion society has towards education and the very limited understanding of the pressures schools are under to resolve the problems society refuses to acknowledge.

Kettle identifies the issue of the History curriculum as being limited but does not outline the cause. It is true that in general, History as a subject has become marginalised and it is also true to suggest that there is a lack of consistency across the board. The Ofsted report ‘History for all‘ in 2011 tells us this:

Patterns of entry for GCSE history varied considerably between different types of school: only 30% of students in maintained schools took the subject in 2010 compared with 48% in independent schools. In academies, the proportion was lower still at 20%.

The are many reasons for the above figures. Two year Key Stage 3. The move to a competency based curriculum. Poor thematic teaching. Integration into ‘Humanities’. None of these are mentioned in Kettle’s report nor is the other driver – more time for students to gain C-A* GCSE grades. What Kettle does state is the old myth that not enough ‘English History’ is being taught. Ofsted disagree.

The view that too little British history is taught in secondary schools in England is a myth. Pupils in the schools visited studied a considerable amount of British history and knew a great deal about the particular topics covered. However, the large majority of the time was spent on English history rather than wider British history.

A cursory glance at the Schoolhistory.co.uk forum would have also told him this. The solution to the problem of not enough English History is to teach History chronologically. I did wonder how many History classrooms or curricula Kettle had viewed in his research. Maintained or independent/Academy? Urban or rural?

What was more worrying is the story of his son’s education as it reveals a more readily voiced ambivalence towards schools and education in general. For all the emphasis Kettle places on the English Civil Wars and that it should be ‘standing in the light’ of education, it seems puzzling that he never appeared to have a conversation with his son about the topics he studied at school. Nor did he seem to take the more active role by taking him on any visits as a child. The subtext of Kettle’s argument is that education is seen solely as the school’s domain and that parental responsibility, or that of wider society, is discharged once the child is past the school gate.

This is a dangerous position to hold and neglects the fact that society shapes what schools do (and they in turn shape society) which is quite unexpected for someone steeped in Marxist writings.  If the final arbiter of how a school performs is a focus on GCSE grades for the all important league tables and job skills, it is not surprising that many schools focus on creating more lesson time for key subjects and remove creative subjects/sports and limit curriculum time for subjects that have no ‘direct’ relevance for the workplace. Child poverty? Schools can deal with it. Law and order? Schools can do that too.  These issues are societal issues and one institution can not do all the work and nor can it be seen as separate from the wider society that gives rise to it.

I am sure that many schools would welcome Kettle coming in to talk about the importance of the English Civil Wars. It really would help challenge the ‘scandal’ in History education and I am a great believer in doing something rather than commentating from the sidelines. I also believe that he would find students who are better informed than he suggests and that the problem, and the solution, is more complex than a confused, particularist view masquerading as a universal and informed judgement on History education.

Photo by Bob August on Flickr

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