Putting my oar into the knowledge versus skills debate

queen-elizabeth-1Nearly everything I read on my Twitter feed these days seems to be connected, in one way or another, to the knowledge versus skills debate that is currently raging in certain educational circles. I was initially rather bemused by it, thinking it strange that people should need to make a case for what seems to me to be the blimming obvious. Knowledge is good. Duh!

It has rapidly dawned on me though, that part of the disconnect for me is a generational one. It’s been nearly 30 years since I took my A-levels and the educational landscape has changed immeasurably since then. What was the norm in my day – didactic teaching of a knowledge-led curriculum – has become something rather contentious. When I talk about a knowledge-led curriculum, I don’t mean that we had to memorise lots of facts unthinkingly. I don’t remember doing much of that. I do remember the teacher, standing at the front of the class, giving us information which we would hastily write down in our exercise books (I had to learn shorthand pretty quickly), probing questions, class discussions, and writing up lots of essays that were then marked with a very critical eye. We were usually expected to read a designated chapter from the textbook before each lesson so that we came prepared to discuss whatever the topic was. There was real depth to our discussions too.

There never was any separation of substantive from disciplinary knowledge – the two went together. Yes we learned about lots of historical events but then we discussed different interpretations of these events, causal factors and tried to explain why particular decisions were made. The type of essay questions we were given almost invariably included discussing different interpretations of a historical figure or event. For example, questions like Examine the view that Edward the Confessor was too much influenced by Normans, or “Not one of the English rebellions during the early years of the reign of King William I seriously threatened his authority.” How far do you agree?

So, while there was a great deal of depth and breadth to our curriculum (what would now be called a knowledge-led curriculum), it was never rote learning or simply copying down lots of facts without thought or analysis. One thing we didn’t do, not even when I went to university, was to analyse original sources just for the sake of it. Naturally we had a look at the Bayeux Tapestry and text sources such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or Orderic Vitalis , we discussed the context in which the sources were written and implications for us as historians, but we never actually had to annotate a source and examine its usefulness for a particular enquiry or discuss what other evidence we would need to back it up.

From a personal standpoint, I don’t really get the obsession with source material in history as it is taught today. I know primary sources are critical for professional historians, who are undertaking research, writing articles in journals and publishing their works. I also know that very often, specialised skill is required to be able to read and understand these sources. If you watched the TV programme about 1066 currently airing on the BBC, you will have seen historian Mark Morris, wielding a magnifying glass and easily reading the Latin text which to us would be unintelligible. This is a very specialist skill, and not a particularly transferable one. Would Mark Morris be able to decipher an ancient Arabic scroll and tell us what useful information could be gleaned from it? Probably not. So while there needs to be a general  understanding of how we piece together information about the past and the problems inherent in our approaches, I don’t think the “skill” of analysing sources should be overstated.

I get surprised when I hear other history teachers essentially describing their subject in terms of the ability to understand and analyse sources, as if that is what makes a historian. To me, history the subject, is all about stories of our past and piecing together our shared humanity, unravelling the complex web of events that led to where we are today. How our parliamentary democracy was born with the Magna Carta, which itself was the culmination of the reign of a greedy and incompetent king, whose powers in turn were the result of the unique circumstances following the Norman conquest of England. History is about understanding who we are and how we got here. That’s the real power and draw of the subject, not some abstract skill for analysing a source.

So, is there room for all our different approaches to history teaching to co-exist? Should we just agree to live and let live? While I would love to say yes, I do have some very serious reservations about the so called “progressive” approach, where skills are emphasised, often at the expense of substantive knowledge. I am sure most of my fellow colleagues blogging on Twitter, no matter where they stand in this debate, teach an awful lot of knowledge in their lessons. But I have seen the other side of progressive history education, and it’s deeply worrying.

I have seen teachers that are not expert in their subject, teaching the knowledge superficially, practically in bullet points. Today, in one history lesson, I heard the teacher talk about Elizabeth being “coronated” in 1559 (whatever that means) and another teacher repeatedly mispronounce the word “recusants” as “rescuants”. One task we had in class today was for the students to pair and share to discuss how Elizabeth should settle the problem of religion at the start of her reign. Most of them concluded that Elizabeth should just let people practice their religion freely (and then presumably everyone would live happily and freely side by side). This was the perfect opportunity for the teacher to explain why this was not possible in 1559, why Elizabeth needed England to be a Protestant country, how otherwise her legitimacy as the daughter of the union between Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII would be called into question. Of course none of this happened, as the lesson starter was quickly followed by a brisk look at the actual religious settlement – a sheet with a column each for the Act of Supremacy, the Act of Uniformity and the Royal Injunctions filled out with bullet points, without any particular depth of discussion. No wonder the students don’t particularly seem to engage with the subject when it is taught at such a shallow level!

Knowledge matters, not just in the curriculum but also within the teacher himself or herself. I hate to say it but what I am seeing is a dumbing down, a teaching of the basics needed to pass the exam but no deeper texture or meaning. I hope you would all agree that this is not the way forward.

Survival of the fittest – time to let our students sink or swim?

There is a striking passage in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book “The signature of all things” – which I heartily recommend by the way – where the protagonist, a 19th century woman with a bent for scientific investigation, travels to Tahiti after having her heart broken. There, she searches for answers about the husband who deserted her. In the course of her stay on the island, she finds out the sad truth about her husband’s love affair with another man and his suicide. She also befriends the local Tahitian women but stands apart from them, her scientific, educated mind at odds with their local customs.

One day, however, she is forcibly dragged into the sea by them to take part in a ritual game called haru raa puu. The usually smiling and placid women turn into aggressive opponents in the water, pushing her down and making her fight for her life. This proves to be a life-affirming experience for Alma, as well as the light bulb moment in her research about mosses and why there are variations in the different species over time: what we would now refer to as the survival of the fittest (the novel uses artistic licence to argue that Alma discovered the theory of evolution years before Darwin did, but never had the courage to publish her findings). Here’s a fairly long excerpt from the book, describing the event:

“What happened next was an impossible thing: a complete halting of time. Eyes open, mouth open, nose streaming blood into Matavai Bay, immobilized and helpless underwater, Alma realized she was about to die. Shockingly, she relaxed. It was not so bad, she thought. It would be so easy, in fact. Death – so feared and so dodged – was, once you faced it, the simplest thing going. In order to die, one merely had to stop attempting to live. One merely had to agree to vanish. If Alma simply remained still, pinned beneath the bulk of this unknown opponent, she would be effortlessly erased. With death, all suffering would end. Doubt would end. Memory – most mercifully of all – would end. All her questions would end. She could quietly excuse herself from life. Ambrose had excused himself, after all. What a relief it must have been to him! Here she had been pitying Ambrose his suicide, but what a welcome deliverance he must have felt! She ought to have been envying him! She could follow him straight there, straight into death. What reason did she have to claw for the air? What point was in the fight?

She relaxed even more.

She saw pale light.

She felt invited toward something lovely. She felt summoned. She remembered her mother’s dying words: Het is fign.

It is pleasant.

Then – in the seconds that remained before it would have been too late to reverse course at all – Alma suddenly knew something. She knew it with every scrap of her being, and it was not a negotiable bit of information: she knew that she, the daughter of Henry and Beatrix Whittaker, had not been put on this earth to drown in five feet of water. She also knew this: if she had to kill somebody in order to save her own life, she would do so unhesitatingly. Lastly, she knew one other thing, and this was the most important realization of all: she knew that the world was plainly divided into those who fought an unrelenting battle to live, and those who surrendered and died. This was a simple fact. This fact was not merely true about the lives of human beings; it was also true of every living entity on the planet, from the largest creation down to the humblest. It was even true of mosses. This fact was the very mechanism of nature – the driving force behind all existence, behind all transmutation, behind all variation – and it was the explanation for the entire world. It was the explanation Alma had been seeking forever.

She came up out of the water. She flung away the body on top of her as though it were nothing. Nose streaming blood, eyes stinging, wrist sprained, chest bruised, she surfaced and sucked in breath. She looked around for the woman who had been holding her under. It was her dear friend, that fearless giantess Sister Manu, whose head was scarred to pieces from all the various awful battles of her own life. Manu was laughing at the expression on Alma’s face. The laughter was affectionate – perhaps even comradely – but still, it was laughter. Alma grabbed Manu by the neck. She gripped her friend as though to crush her throat. At the top of her voice, Alma thundered, just as the Hiro contingent had taught her:

‘OVAU TEIE!

TOA HAU A’E TAU METUA I TA ‘OE!

E ‘ORE TAU ‘SOMORE E MAE QE IA ‘EO!”

THIS IS ME!

MY FATHER WAS A GREATER WARRIOR THAN YOUR FATHER!

YOU CANNOT EVEN LIFT MY SPEAR!’

Then Alma let go, releasing her grip on Sister Manu’s neck. Without a moment’s hesitation, Manu howled back in Alma’s face a magnificent roar of approval.

Alma marched toward the beach.

She was oblivious to everyone and everything in her midst. If anyone on the beach was either cheering for her or against her, she could not possibly have noticed.

She came striding out of the sea like she was born from it.”

Why, you may ask, am I quoting the passage above and what could it possibly have to do with education? Before I answer, let me give you another vignette, gleaned from a “Good Morning America” video about China which we watched in a Geography lesson today.

In the video, we found out about all the goods produced in China, at very low cost in their factories and the effect this has had on local industries in America. There is a memorable interview with the author, Thomas Friedman, in which he says:

“There ain’t no such thing as an American job, ok, there’s just a job, and in many cases it will go to the most efficient, cheapest, smartest person who can do that job. You as an individual have to locate now increasingly globally and think of yourself as competing with people globally… My parents used to say to me, Tom, finish your dinner, people in China and India are starving. And what I tell my girls today is: girls, finish your homework, people in China and India are starving for your jobs.”

Do “survival of the fittest” and globalisation have implications for education? Before I go any further, let me just say that I am not for a minute advocating entering into a rat race with China and other Asian countries for just how hard and long we can make our students work. I do think though, that our child-centered education where pupils are taught a sense of entitlement and often given an inflated idea of their uniqueness, is at odds with the realities of the world out there.

I have been thinking a lot lately about how well-meaning actions often have unintended consequences. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the world of education which is filled with decent, caring people who want to make the world a better place. I like to think I am one of them. And yet quite clearly, despite our best efforts, far too many students are leaving school with few qualifications, poor social skills and weak literacy and knowledge.

I could talk about the unintended consequences of well-intentioned interventions on poorly behaved students and how the “some excuses” as opposed to “no excuses” approach to behaviour management has created a culture in which certain kids think they can get away with outrageous behaviour.  It’s true that a lot of them are unhappy, unloved and worthy of our sympathy. So they get taken out of their classes and sent to us in the SEN department, where they get lots of attention and the added bonus of not having to sit in boring/challenging lessons. Of course they know that if their behaviour improves, they will be compelled to go back to their lessons. Instead, they let loose with every tantrum under the sun, knocking over displays, chairs and bins, kicking and banging on doors. And thus we go from one crisis to another, talking and complaining about so and so’s behaviour, but never acknowledging our collusion in it.

But our softly softly child-centered approach also has unintended consequences on other students. One of the students I support in my school is very well behaved, yet here too our well-meaning approach is having a detrimental effect on her. This student is a refugee from Syria, who arrived in the UK last Summer with very little English and huge gaps in her education. As I speak Arabic, I was asked to support her in classes and also tasked with teaching her English. In lessons, I sit beside her with my mini whiteboard, translating for her and supporting her as required. What has happened is that she has very quickly learned that none of her teachers have any expectations of her, so she sits back passively and puts very little effort beyond copying things off the whiteboard. Lately, I have started to wonder whether my presence in class with her is more a hindrance or a help.

This is where I am reminded of Alma, moping for her lost love, but jolted out of her complacency by having to literally fight for her life. Perhaps we should be removing the crutches and challenging our students to sink or swim. It may not be as high stakes as life or death, but let’s at least jolt them into fighting for their place in the world or, fighting to keep up with their classmates.

I’ll finish with this little example. Delving through my stash of old essays and school books, I found my English book from when I was in Lower 5th (the equivalent of year 10 today). This was my first year in an English school (as I grew up in Geneva and subsequently went to a French school in London), so English was very much a second language for me. Nevertheless, I had managed to write a three-page story entitled “The inheritance”. Did my teacher shower me with positive comments and encouragement in her feedback? Not a bit. One paragraph has her comment of “cliché” in the margin. And her final remarks put my work firmly in its place: “B+  This is accurate but I did not find it convincing. Do be careful with fantasy: this reads like something you have read and it does not make me believe in it. Try taking a simple incident from your own life as a basis.

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Questions regarding curriculum which have turned into a call to arms to read more

I have read with interest Michael Fordham’s recent blog posts about different approaches to history curriculum design and their problems. I must confess, as a newbie to the profession, to feeling more than a little overwhelmed by my unfamiliarity with a lot of the theories and concepts he mentions.

Being the kind of person I am, I often try to simplify complex arguments I read into clear and intelligible statements just so that I am able to make sense of it all. For this reason, I tweeted the following response:

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I got to pondering, in my own small way, the implications of this. If there are no shortcuts to becoming good at history, if lots and lots of knowledge about different things is needed in order to be able to make analysis, inferences and form opinions, how on earth can we deliver this knowledge in schools given the limited hours available to teach it?

This was far easier to accomplish in my day because, quite simply, we read a lot. I remember a childhood filled with books, not because I was particularly erudite but because books were the only real source of entertainment available to me, the only escape I had from boredom. With no Netflix, no social media, no Google to look things up and no cheap travel, I lost myself in countless books and transported myself to exotic locations through the stories I read. I was not prescriptive in my reading. The only criterion was that it should entertain me. Thus I read Agatha Christie mysteries, Georgette Heyer romances, Jean Plaidy’s historical novels, as well as the anointed greats such as Jane Austen or Tolstoy. I remember spending an entire Easter holiday ensconced in my room devouring “War and Peace”. My mother despaired of ever seeing my face, I had to be dragged to the dinner table under duress because all I wanted was to continue reading this all-engrossing saga.

Again, I reiterate, I was not particularly scholarly. What I was doing was not uncommon in my time. I read about a book a day, but then so did many of my friends. My best friend would do a fortnightly trip to the library with her two siblings where each of them would take out 10 books and then share the 30 books between each other before going back for more. Without ever consciously realising it, we were accumulating that fingertip knowledge that Christine Counsell may have been talking about last week at the WLFS conference (I was unfortunately unable to attend). And so we came to our lessons already well briefed, well primed for the accumulation of more knowledge and for developing our writing and analytical skills.

The problem, as I see it, is how do we develop this knowledge with the current generation, living in the modern world full of distractions? My personal experience of trying to foster a love of reading in my 8-year old son demonstrates just what a challenge this is. By comparison with his contemporaries, my son is an able reader and has a wide and sophisticated vocabulary. By comparison with me at his age, however, he does not fare so well. How do we bridge this impasse?

I have read about Michaela school with great interest (and hope to visit in the not too distant future) and I know it garners a considerable amount of criticism, but one thing (out of many) that I admire is their utter commitment to getting their pupils to read as much as possible the great literary works in our canon. Perhaps what needs to happen, is for that process to start much sooner, in primary school. Imagine primary schools with the Michaela ethos, insisting that children read a whole load of great books before they finish year 6. Imagine this being a priority, embedded in the school day and curriculum. There is no other place for that reading to take place and schools have to acknowledge this. Realistically, children are not, in today’s world, going to read these books at home – they will be on their computers and game stations. The reading needs to happen at school if it ever stands a chance of becoming a habit.

Teacher training here I come

Last week I posted on Twitter a screen shot of the lesson plan template sent to me by a school I was going to for a history teacher training interview. The accompanying caption said something like “Learning Styles alive and well!”

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The Twitter post received a fair amount of attention (and gained me a dozen new followers) with admonitions to run a mile from this behind-the-times, anachronistic school.

Well, salaried history school-direct places are in short supply, so running a mile was not an option. It was to be my fourth teacher training interview. Needless to say the previous three had not gone my way.

The first interview, with one of the large multi-academy chains, was conducted in a central London office rather than in a school, and so there was no opportunity for me to even teach a lesson. Instead, I was grilled by two self-important looking women who sat across from me and didn’t crack a single smile the whole time they interrogated me. In the feedback at the end, they told me it wasn’t that they didn’t think I would make a good teacher but rather that because their schools were in very disadvantaged areas, they didn’t think I would “fit with their ethos”. Interpret that as you will.

My second interview went a lot better and I genuinely thought I made a positive impression. The feedback this time was that I had interviewed very well but that, unfortunately for me, there had been another, better candidate on the day. Just what kind of calibre of people am I competing with, I wondered? The disappointment though was tempered by the invitation to my third interview, this time with my first choice of school. I really wanted this one because it was an outsdanding, highly over-subscribed school with a very solid reputation that was an easy commute from my son’s school (important consideration for breakfast club drop off etc).

I was told to prepare a 15 minute lesson on “the problems William faced after the battle of Hastings” and I spent hours preparing the lesson and rehearsing it in my bedroom. On the day I thought I did alright given the circumstances, though 15 minutes didn’t feel like enough time to do anything meaningful and they were very strict about the time, cutting me off in mid-sentence, ushering me out just as they ushered in the next candidate to teach the class. The interview after the lesson didn’t gel. I felt they were a bit half-hearted in their questions and ended it much too soon before I had a chance to give a good account of myself. I was fairly sure I hadn’t got the position at that point, but wanted to get some feedback to find out where I had gone wrong.

The feedback, when I got it, was rather dispiriting. They felt my teaching was too didactic and would have liked me to have talked less and given the students more independent work to do. Talked less? I had asked a lot of searching questions and got interesting responses from over a dozen students, we had read a passage together and then discussed. I had drawn a spider diagram on the whiteboard. If we’d had more time, I would have asked them to do a write up but there’s a limit to what you can do in 15 minutes. Nevertheless, learning happened. Just not, it seems, in the style they wanted it to.

At that point, I had to regroup and rethink. Was teaching in the state sector really for me? Maybe I was just too old (46 years) and too “traditional”. After all, I had been privately schooled over 30 years ago when ‘O’ levels were still around. All the teachers had taught us didactically from the front. We didn’t have interactive whiteboards, group work, handouts every lesson, writing frames to copy or ‘engaging lessons’ with the occasional video footage. We just had a textbook, our exercise book and our handwritten notes of what the teacher was saying. We wrote lots and read a whole lot more. So maybe I am a dinosaur of a bygone age – but I think I got a pretty good education.

I remember feeling very puzzled the very first time I observed a history lesson in a secondary academy last year. Puzzled because it seemed to me that there was no teaching happening. The lesson had started with the teacher handing out assessment books and asking the pupils to read the feedback and write the follow up questions in green pen. This activity took up the first half of the lesson. Then the pupils were given a “do now ” sheet with a source quoted in captions and a set of questions to answer. Once the pupils had had a chance to tackle these questions, the teacher went through them with the class and then in the final 5 minutes of the lesson, he finally taught some new content to the class. For the most part, from my perspective as an observer, the teacher had acted more as a facilitator and enforcer of behaviour management rather than as an imparter of knowledge. It seemed a million miles away from my experience of teaching.

So maybe I just wasn’t a good fit for the state sector. I had read with interest about how lessons are taught at free schools like Michaela and the West London Free School, but these were outliers, not the norm. Perhaps I should turn my attention to finding a teaching job in the independent sector, where the ethos might be more in tune with my ideas on academic rigour. I started looking through the job ads but I kept coming back to the main obstacle: my lack of QTS. I decided to look through the UCAS site one more time to see what salaried history teacher training vacancies still remained and on a whim, I applied to this, my fourth school. An hour later, I got a phone call at home from the vice-principal of the school inviting me to interview.

Of course, my heart sank when I saw the lesson plan template. It seemed awfully micro-managed, either doing episode patterns with VAK activities or doing something called the 5 ‘E’s. Why can’t it be kept simple, as in stating what the learning objective is, explicitly teaching that new content, practising it then giving feedback? However, I went along and did a lesson plan guided by these 5 ‘E’s. “I better do some independent group work activity”, I thought, “and make sure I don’t talk too much then.” This time the lesson was on the feudal system under William the conqueror and I had 40 minutes to get my teeth into it. I prepared some worksheets and thought we could do some role play of barons and knights taking their oath of allegiance to their lord. Nothing too didactic, nothing too directed from me.

Miracle of miracles. They loved it, they loved me! The last 20 minutes of the interview were spent with me bemusedly listening to the vice principal extolling the virtues of her school and all the reasons why I should choose to train there. So there it is, I finally cracked it (or toed the line more like). To be fair, I really liked the atmosphere at the school. Everyone was friendly and supportive, and the behaviour of the pupils was good, especially compared to my current school. They didn’t balk but nodded approvingly when I talked about how I was interested in evidence-based practice and how I was keen on the ideas of spaced practice and retrieval practice. Maybe not so anachronistic after all. We shall have to see. Teacher training, here I come!

My long journey into teaching and an ode to my parents

My teenage mother
My teenage mother

During the heated grammar school debate a few months ago, I read a few excellent blogs such as this one, from teachers who were the first in their own families to go to university and how their bright and intelligent mothers had been denied the opportunity to better themselves because of a poor education in secondary moderns. That got me thinking about my own mother and her legacy to me, and I have finally got around to writing my thoughts about it.

I wasn’t the first generation in my family to go to university. My mother was. It was all the more remarkable because of the difficult circumstances of her early life. She grew up in Damascus, Syria, at a time in the early sixties, when women were not generally expected to get a university education. Her father died when she was two, leaving her widowed mother virtually penniless with five children to care for. Her mother eventually remarried but her new husband was not interested in bringing up or funding some other man’s children. And so my mum and her siblings were left to mostly fend for themselves and times were often very hard. She told me once how she would wear two skirts on top of one another in order to fatten her skinny frame up.

In spite of all this, my mum did well at school while having to overcome the handicap of being forced, as a left hander, to write with her right hand. She was also very politically engaged from an early age. Those years in the late fifties and early sixties were full of political turbulence in Syria. This was the time of the disastrous political union between Syria and Egypt and my mum was a vocal opponent of the union, sometimes openly disagreeing with her teachers at school who toed the party line. Somehow, and now I wish she were here today so that I could ask her for more details, she got offered a place to study commerce at Damascus University. Going to university was how she met my father.

He was not a student at the university. In fact, when they got married, my mum was the one with the degree, not my dad. He was from Saudi Arabia but had a Syrian mother and had grown up in Damascus until his late teens when his father had summoned him back to his home town of Medina to help with the family shop keeping business. This did not work out very well and after a falling out, my dad headed to the coastal city of Jeddah to seek his own fortune. As luck would have it, the newly established Ministry of Foreign Affairs was looking for some recruits. My dad sat the civil service exam, passed and entered the diplomatic service.

His first posting was to Franco’s Spain in the early sixties. In Spain, he lodged with a landlady who taught him about social etiquette, dallied with Spanish girlfriends and learned to speak the language fluently. My grandmother was not happy. On every visit home, she tried to pressure him into marrying, putting forward as a candidate the next door neighbour’s daughter. My father was having none of it but as his posting in Spain came to an end and he had to return to Saudi Arabia, he knew that his mother would continue her insistent nagging about him getting married unless he did something about it. He decided to give in gracefully but find a bride of his own choosing.

With this in mind, he said his goodbyes to all his friends in Spain, packed his belongings into his smart new car, and decided to drive down to Syria in one last road trip as a bachelor. On arriving in Damascus, he sought out an old school friend of his and asked if he knew any nice girls he could be introduced to. This old school friend happened to be at university with my mother and immediately thought of her. My father promptly turned up at the university and my mother was pointed out to him from afar. He obviously liked what he saw because he soon presented himself to my grandmother as a suitor for her hand. Now it was my mother’s turn to have none of it. She wasn’t about to give herself to an unknown, uncouth Saudi Arabian. She initially refused to come out of her room to meet him but eventually deigned to do so. One look at him and the rest, as they say, is history.

Following her marriage (in a hand-me-down dress from her older sister’s wedding), my mother left Syria and started her new life as the wife of a diplomat. There was no opportunity for her to find a job and develop a career. In any case, she soon fell pregnant with the first of her four children, each one born in a different country. While my mother settled into a life of domesticity, my father’s star was rising rapidly. He obtained a degree in politics, a master in international relations and even started a PhD at Oxford University though he never had the chance to complete it. He steadily moved up the ranks of the civil service and, two years or so before his untimely death, was made a deputy minister of foreign affairs.

My mum the housewife, with me (far right) and my sister
My mum the housewife, with me (far right) and my sister

On the face of it, my mother was a conventional stay-at-home housewife but her keen mind was constantly whirring. She taught herself French in our posting in Geneva and then English when we came to London. She read avidly in both of these languages as well as her native Arabic. She followed the news and discussed politics with my dad when he came home from work. But then, as the years went on, things changed. Her children grew up and didn’t need her so much anymore and dad’s work took him away from home far too often to summits and meetings all around the world. All alone in her big house in Riyadh, she got lonely and drifted into depression. When my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the age of 55, she nursed him with utter dedication until the day he died, but then her depression deepened even more. Just over a year later, she died suddenly of an aneurism, a much loved, deeply intelligent but lonely and diminished woman.

How does my mother’s story relate with my decision to enter teaching in my mid-forties? Let me explain.

I am an extremely lucky person. I grew up with loving and supportive parents who encouraged me to make my mark in the world. I was educated at a select private school for girls and went to a Russell Group university. One of my dad’s proudest moments was when I graduated with an MBA. The world was my oyster when I started working as a business consultant. I had grown up watching Joan Collins strut her stuff in shoulder pads on Dynasty, and I pictured myself walking into board rooms and making power deals. The reality was rather different. There were no power deals in board rooms. The work was sometimes interesting, often dull, and all around me were alpha males in suits who were massively better than me at self-promotion. By the time my parents passed away, I knew the business world wasn’t for me and I eventually jacked it in and decided to re-train as a reflexologist and aromatherapist. I wanted to do something that involved daily positive interaction with other human beings and I wanted to feel useful. For a few years, I eked out a living as a complementary therapist. I think I was good at it and it was satisfying though not hugely challenging.

Then my own little thunderbolt happened. I met and married a wonderful man and welcomed my son into the world. Following in my mother’s footsteps, I dedicated myself to my family. We bought an old house that was a bit of a wreck and I spent hours meticulously planning the refurbishment. I immersed myself in happy domesticity but after my son started school, I found myself at a bit of a loose end. I started thinking about resurrecting my complementary therapy career but kept putting it off for inexplicable reasons. A new Netflix membership two years ago saw me lounge on the sofa for hours on end watching one episode after another of popular drama series. Throughout, the memory of my mother kept nudging my mind, reminding me what happens when an intelligent and educated woman wastes her talents away. I don’t think I was depressed but I did lose a lot of my self confidence. I applied for a part time job in the administration of a newly set up local primary school but didn’t even get an interview. I had been so thoroughly de-skilled that even my BA, my MBA and my business experience couldn’t get my foot through the door.

So what saved me? Well, the first nudge I got into teaching was when I found out my son had been placed in the middle ability group in his class. Outrageous! How could my bright and clever son ever be considered to be of middling ability? Why were they streaming five year olds in the first place? Why hadn’t I been told of this? I had never before in my life encountered streaming in practice. The closest I ever came was when, as a teenager, we were divided into 4 “teaching groups” for maths. I hadn’t expected or ever thought that young children in year 1 would be judged on their ability and separated in this way. I was galvanised by outrage. Following a meeting with the deputy head of my son’s school, I scoured the internet for all the information I could find about ability grouping. I bought Carol Dweck’s book on mindset and Alison Peacock’s “Learning without limits”. I encountered blog after interesting blog about education and I read and read and read. I decided to do some extra tutoring with my son at home, and found great satisfaction in seeing his rapid progress once I took his education into my hands.

Then last year, at Christmas, I turned 45. The clock was ticking and I was no closer to finding a way to make my mark on the world. Next day, I happened to read an article about the crisis in teacher recruitment and how there was a particular shortage in secondary teachers. The day after that, I saw an advert on TV encouraging people to get into teaching. Could this be something for me? I sought advice from my husband and siblings and was surprised to find it uniformly positive. “You’d be a great teacher”, they told me, “fantastic idea”, “go for it”. I set about trying to arrange some school experience by volunteering, which was easier said than done. My first day at the inner city academy where I now work was scary and nerve racking. This was a world away from the girls’ school I had attended. I stuck with it though. It has been incredibly challenging at times but I have stuck with it and I know I will go the distance. The alternative, as my mother’s story keeps reminding me, is far scarier.

Change is in the air

I have been following the bitter arguments on Twitter between educational traditionalists and progressives with interest lately. A lot of the anger has come about as a result of the event last weekend held at Michaela school to promote their new book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers”. There was a very memorable moment in the debate where Michaela head, Katharine Birbalsingh, made an impassioned speech about reclaiming authority and discipline in our schools. I won’t paraphrase it too much, best listen to it here.

The speech, which was not everybody’s cup of tea, struck a real chord with me because I am witnessing on a daily basis what happens to a school when respect for teachers is lost and behaviour gets out of hand. It isn’t pretty. Actually, it’s tragic and I feel desperately sorry for the students at my school who are unlikely to get much of an education at the end of their time here. I feel particularly frustrated because the school I work in is new – it opened only 4 years ago. The leadership had a perfect opportunity to start something from scratch and embed the right kind of culture in that first year where there was only one year group to contend with, but that precious opportunity was squandered away. Instead, we have a set of year 10s who behave with impunity because they know they can get away with it, and in turn they set a poor example for all the other year groups.

Our head’s big mantra, as far as I can tell, is grit. Yes he wants the students at his school to do well academically, but more importantly, he wants them to show grit and resilience. A lot of what he says to us on inset days could be lifted straight out of “Educating Ruby”, a book I found incredibly disheartening in its approach to education. The main message, if you have not read it, is that there are some things more important to learn at school than the academic curriculum. It’s alright that the mythical Ruby in the book leaves school without any A-C GCSEs because she has learnt something else more valuable: grit and resilience. Such skills, we are to infer, will allow her to make the most of her lot in life (i.e. she will probably stay poor but she will be a more contented poor).

This kind of message, I believe, stems from a defeatist attitude to education born out of decades of low achievement in schools. So the paradigm gets shifted. Instead of focussing on academic results when it’s frankly clear that these are just not going to improve for a large chunk of the school population, we shift our measures of success to more intangible things that all sound good in theory: creativity, problem solving skills, grit etc…

But what happens when a school like Michaela comes along which unashamedly says the opposite? Poor children can achieve, they can do as well if not better than privately educated children, if only we have the right culture of discipline and high expectations. What happens if, as is becoming increasingly clear, such a school manages to demonstrate that this can actually be done in practice? How will others react to this? Some, like me, are curious to find out more, to see what can be learned from the Michaela experiment.

I don’t have any axe to grind or any record to defend though. I think it may be a lot different for teachers and school leaders who have invested a lot of their time and effort doing the progressive thing and have not been able to show the same degree of success. How difficult must it be for them to see a school doing everything they have been taught to believe is wrong and regressive, actually helping the most disadvantaged children get on in life. This is where the concept of the sunken cost fallacy comes into play. Too much has been invested in a course of action to turn back and change course, even when the evidence is there for all to see. So instead of greeting the new approach with curiosity and interest, far too often the reaction is to denigrate, to accuse, to attack.

I am watching the battle of ideas raging on with great interest. What must it be like for teachers who entered the profession a decade or so ago, when the orthodoxy was all about progressive education (as evidenced in Andrew Old’s recent blog) to be confronted with the complete opposite? Human beings are generally a conservative lot (with a small c). We don’t generally like to be jolted out of our comfort zone. And we certainly don’t like to be told that what we have been doing for the last ten years or so, what we have toiled at with the best of intentions, was actually the wrong thing to do. It’s little surprise that the reaction of many is one of anger.

This brings to mind something that I witnessed when I was a mere slip of a girl during my gap year when I worked at the Handicapped Children’s House in Riyadh. My parents lived there at the time and managed to help me secure a job as a teaching assistant in the Early Childhood Program (ECP), working with 3-5 year old disabled children. I had playgroups and one-to-one sessions where mostly I was told to play ball games to help their motor skills and sing lots of cheesy songs. One month into the job, the American head, a lovely lady named Dr. Ann Gerard, announced her retirement and the appointment of a new head, who was Saudi Arabian and who had recently returned from the USA with two masters in special education. The new head soon started making some changes. She introduced us to the Portage development scale and how we could use it to assess the development of our pupils to set appropriate goals for them. I remember being delighted at the prospect of doing something new and meaningful, something a little bit more directed than ball games and songs. But my colleagues were not so happy.

They wasted no time in showing their hostility to the new regime. I was shocked at the level of antagonism and resentment towards the new head, just because she had the temerity to change the way they had comfortably been doing their work for years. At every opportunity they tried to sabotage what she was doing and they made her life hell, to the point where she resigned from the job two years later (after I had left). Interestingly though, when I caught up with my old colleagues a few years later, they were happily using all the new techniques she had introduced.

I think that was my first real insight into the human condition and for this reason, I have not been all that surprised at the reaction of the progressives to the resurgence of traditional teaching. I have been quite energised by it actually because to me, it shows that it has hit a nerve: change is in the air and the low expectations of progressivism inexorably on their way out.

A reminder that I’m not so young anymore

I was supporting a student in a year 7 English lesson today and we were given a new poem to study entitled “Hurricane hits England”. The poem, by Grace Nichols, was inspired by the great hurricane that hit our shores back in 1987.

As the teacher introduced the poem, she talked to the students about the 1987 hurricane and showed that famous footage of Michael Fish doing the weather forecast and assuring the viewers that there was no hurricane on the way. I laughed in remembrance and then found myself startled when I heard the teacher say that she was born shortly after this event. That made me sit up. How could it be that a grown up professional, a teacher for God’s sake, was too young to have even been alive in 1987?

Well of course, do the maths and it’s entirely possible. On an intellectual level, I have naturally been aware that I am older than many of the teachers in the school but I never felt it at the gut level like I did today. One of the challenges going into teaching at the ripe old age of 45 is the knowledge that I will most probably have to be taught or mentored by people who are a good deal younger than me.

There are two sides to this coin. On the one hand, I need to be atuned to the fact that, regardless of age, my colleagues will know a lot more about the business of teaching than I do and that I will have to listen to their advice carefully. On the other hand, I clearly have a great deal of experience under my belt and already have formed my own (not intractable) views on educational matters. I will have to chart a course between genuinely opening my mind to new ideas and sticking to my guns when what is being spouted at me seems nonsensical. But most of all, I will have to learn real humility because teaching as a profession involves a daily admission that you still have a lot to learn yourself.

Going back to today’s lesson. The hurricane was being described as if it were a historical event beyond living memory and so of course I had to say out loud that I remembered it very well. All eyes turned to me. “How did I feel?”, “was I frightened?”, they asked with interest. There, my moment of fame came to a sad end as I had to admit the disappointing truth: I slept right through it.

 

What’s this education lark all about?

I had my first teacher training interview last Friday. I’m not sure how I came across or whether I shall be invited back for the next stage in the recruitment process. One thing I was asked to do was to give a 5 minute presentation on a topic of my choice and after some deliberation, I decided to talk about my vision for education. I figured it was important to explain why I wanted to be a teacher and what kind of teacher I wanted to be. If my vision didn’t square with theirs, then we would not be a good fit either way.

I’m sharing here some of what I said. Maybe you can have a better inkling than me whether it went down well or not. In any case, I found it a useful exercise to put into words what I believe education is about and what it should look like. It went a little like this…

Let me start by saying that education is very precious to me. It allowed me to be more thoughtful, analytical and philosophical. It opened many doors for me and I want to be able to pass that gift on to my students and help open doors for them too. I’ve seen the various educational debates that are raging at the moment between the “traditionalists” who emphasize a knowledge-led curriculum versus the “progressives” who want to focus more on creative thinking and problem solving skills. And I have to confess to being baffled by this dichotomy on offer. Why do we have to choose between one or the other?

I’ve always thought it was a given that a teacher’s job was to impart knowledge and that this knowledge would underpin creativity and problem solving. Let me give you an analogy which demonstrates my point, albeit not in an educational setting. My mother taught me how to make perfect, fluffy white rice. Over the years, I have taken her recipe and added a few tweaks of my own. My expertise in cooking rice gave me the confidence to play around with the recipe, to be creative with it. I hope to teach my son, when he is a bit older, how to cook rice both the way my mum made it and with my innovations. In due course, I expect he will go forth into the world with this knowledge and try out his own permutations of it. In this way knowledge gets passed on and improved upon from generation to generation.

I guess this means that I fall more into the “knowledge-led” camp. To be honest though, I think this is all a bit of a no brainer and that we need to look beyond this debate. What do we understand by a good education? Now it is beyond the scope of my 5 minutes to answer this question in any depth but let me give you, very briefly, my perspective on what encapsulates a good education, based on what I have read and observed in schools so far.

I’ve talked already about the importance of imparting knowledge and so I won’t go much more into that. Secondly, I believe in pitching things up and setting high expectations rather than pitching things down as is so often the case. For example, I am not in favour of giving students lots of handouts rather than expecting them to write their own notes and I’m not in favour of spoon feeding them with writing frames rather than encouraging them to formulate their own sentences. I have seen Year 10 history students carelessly copy down the writing frames on the white board and then cobble them together with what is written on their handouts, resulting in often incoherent sentences that make no grammatical sense. I think all this spoon feeding derives from a sense, not overtly articulated, that the students are just not able to work at that high a level and so we have to pitch things down for them. But then this becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. If you want to raise standards you have to have high expectations. You can’t do it by just making things easier. Of course that’s much harder to do and much more challenging, but nothing worthwhile is ever achieved by taking the easy road.

When I think of a good education I also think of language skills and communication. If you can’t read, write or speak properly, you haven’t been well educated, full stop. I am able to sit here before you and speak articulately about this topic precisely because of my education.

And finally we come to what is, to my mind, one of the biggest issues of the day: behaviour management. If you are constantly having to manage even low level disruption, constantly having to stop what you’re saying because someone is talking over you, then you are not going to be able to teach very well. I see behaviour and discipline rather like the first building blocks in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In order to learn, I believe you need to be in classrooms where there is good behaviour. You can have a well behaved classroom where learning doesn’t happen, but not the other way around.

Those then are my five pillars of a good education: knowledge, pitching things up, language, communication and discipline. That’s what I think teaching is about and I hope most of what I have said chimes with your outlook on education.

[At this point, I was told I had about 30 seconds left, so I decided to squeeze in one last bit of the presentation I had prepared.]

Let me finish with this little vignette.

Many teachers will have had a light bulb moment when they realise teaching is the profession for them. Although I probably had been thinking about it sub-consciously for a while, I had such a moment when I received this note from my son’s teacher.

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When I tell you this note was written by no less than the deputy head of an Ofsted Outstanding school, you may get an idea of my level of frustration, disillusionment and ultimately my conviction that someone needs to step in and raise standards. I do believe that teachers have to be well educated themselves, to be masters of their subject, in order to pass that on to their students. When I saw this note I realised that here was an opportunity for me to do something of value. Or more simply, it made me feel needed. And so here I am, raring to go. Thank you for listening.

When did we lose our authority over our kids?

At the tail end of Friday I heard some of my colleagues discuss meeting up in the pub for a few drinks after work. My plans were rather different: pick up the kid from after school club, then home. I managed to get through dinner, homework and bedtime before collapsing into bed myself and sleeping for an unheard of 13 hours.

So what made my week so exhausting? I work as a learning support assistant though I do also teach EAL English to a few students who are refugees from Syria. This involves developing the curriculum, lesson planning and preparing an end of term 1 assessment for them, so one could say there is something of the teacher’s workload in my busy week. Still, I haven’t had to mark mountains of homework so that alone doesn’t go far enough towards explaining my fatigue.

Maybe it’s because we are approaching half term but I do get the sense that behaviour has got a lot worse over the last week. I had to break up two fights in the corridor in the space of two days and on the last period on Friday, at the start of my enrichment club, a girl came into my classroom, said a few angry words to a boy there, punched him in the stomach and then strutted out before I had a chance to stop her getting away. I later had to try to sift through class photos on the SIMS system before I identified her and gave her a “red card” for “reckless behaviour” which will add 10 behaviour points to the 60 or so she had already, no big deal for her.

All week long, navigating a path to classrooms between each lesson has proved to be something of an obstacle course. Hordes of children moving about in a chaotic manner, sometimes just stopping in the middle of the staircase for a chat, sometimes having raging arguments, laughing or being rowdy – this is no orderly procession from class to class. Fighting my way through these hordes to get to my classroom has become something of a daily struggle. Yesterday after period 3, I finally reached the top floor, turned right towards my classroom only to hear a girl shouting out to another “I’m going to punch you for this”. I remonstrated with “this is not appropriate language to use at school” but the girl simply ignored me and walked off.

I also noticed something else which gave me pause for thought. Twice this week, I have been accused by students of being rude to them, both times in nearly identical circumstances. This is what happened. I was trying to make my way up the back staircase to go to my next lesson but got held up by a group of girls having a heated conversation on the half landing. I said to them in a stern voice “go to your classrooms now please”, when this had no effect I then raised my voice and said “get moving to your class now” and when that still had no effect I literally had to shout at them to “go on, get moving now”. What did I then get for my troubles? A pained, injured expression on their faces and the accusation that I had been rude to them.

When did it become ok for students to talk back at teachers and accuse them of being rude? When did we lose our authority over our children? Looking back at my years at school, I don’t think I could ever have spoken to my teachers the way these kids were talking to me. If a teacher had told me to go to my classroom, I would have obeyed. I don’t think I ever witnessed chairs being upended or threats of physical violence, something of a daily occurrence in my school. Let’s not forget, this is a school rated as “good” by Ofsted. I dread to think what goes on in the ones that require improvement.

I am not so old that I ever experienced corporal punishment in school but there was always an element of respectful fear of teachers, particularly senior staff. Both of my headmistresses, Mlle Dutouquet in primary and Miss Rudland in secondary were what one would call battleaxes. Rather strict and stern individuals you didn’t ever want to get on the wrong side of. If you happened to pass them in the corridor, you would unconsciously make yourself as inconspicuous as possible. You did not want that eagle eye to fall on you.

Now I don’t want to come across as a traditionalist who views the past through gilded lenses. The kind of schools where teachers could behave like tyrants, ordering children about and imposing harsh punishments for misdemeanours obviously have no place in our modern world. Yet I do wonder if our efforts to empower children and to give them a voice have taken matters to the other extreme. Their empowerment has come at the expense of our authority. There is a happy medium somewhere but I have not seen it in any of the schools I have worked in, except perhaps the independent prep school I was with last year.

It is in this context that I am intrigued by the reports I read about Michaela free school in Wembley, the marmite school that has sharply divided opinion. Its head is Katharine Birbalsingh, the darling of the Tories and a champion of Michael Gove’s educational reforms. This on its own is enough to raise the hackles of the left leaning educational establishment. As I don’t belong to any of the two main political tribes of this country, I am not particularly bothered by the political hue of this school’s leadership. What interests me is what they seem to be achieving in terms of behaviour and educational attainment. I am told that students at Michaela walk the corridors in silence between lessons and that they are able to pack up their belongings, get to the next lesson and be ready to learn all in the space of 2 minutes. I hear that teachers are free to teach without having to constantly keep on top of behaviour management. I hear that they teach the children about gratitude and kindness. I’m intrigued.

On an impulse last week, I sent an email to the vice principal of my school who is also my line manager. I attached a link to Tom Benett’s blog about his visit to Michaela and asked whether anyone from our school had been to visit. If there were any plans to do so in the pipeline, please could I hitch a ride? When I next met up with her, she asked me about Michaela in a way that indicated she had never heard of this school before. I was surprised. I forgot that not everyone is in my twitter bubble. The long and short of it is that she would be happy for me to visit Michaela as part of my CPD though I did suggest that she accompany me there, as I feel it is important for a member of the leadership to see if there are any lessons we can learn from Michaela.

So, Michaela school, I hope you are still welcoming visitors because I want to come and see for myself how you do the things you do. If you’ve managed to crack the behaviour thing, then I want to learn how you do it. Make no mistake. Behaviour is the single most important issue in education today. We need to sort it out for the children’s sake but also for our own sanity. Maybe then I won’t have to come home at the end of the week feeling as low as I did last Friday.

Wading ever so slightly into the grammar school debate

I have just completed my first week as a Learning Support Assistant at an inner London secondary academy. I took the job to gain experience in the state education sector before applying for teacher training. Prior to that, I had worked for a term as a teaching assistant at an independent prep school. It will come as no surprise if I say that my current school feels a million miles removed from my previous one.

The first and most obvious difference is in the pupil intake. This is a school with a very high percentage of children on free school meals and over 50% of them with English as an additional language. I had the opportunity to observe the new intake of year 7 students during their induction process. Comprehensive is the word that springs to mind when I think of these year 7s. At one end of the spectrum, a handful of very bright and engaged students immediately stood out. There was a solid number of students who seemed to be working within the expectations for their year group but also a fair few that seemed to be struggling with their reading and writing. Add to this mix a couple of students recently arrived in the country (one of them a Syrian refugee) with little or no English. And to complete the picture, the new intake also included a few disruptive students with serious behavioural issues.

Academies and free schools have been at the forefront of the government’s educational policies for the last few years and there have been some notable success stories, in London schools particularly. My school could be considered one of these successes. Rated “good” by Ofsted, it has a dedicated and motivated leadership and there is a palpable ethos of aspiration. Although budgets are always tight, the pupil premium accompanying a large number of the students has meant the school has been able to invest in a significant number of specialist and support staff, myself included. The school itself is housed in a state-of-the-art newly built campus. There are also some tremendously talented and inspirational teachers, the backbone surely of any good school.

The acid test for me, however, is this. My son currently attends the local state primary but before too long we will need to think about secondary schools for him. Would I want my own son to go to this school? The answer to that is a definite no. And the reason for that is a relatively simple one. Because the school is comprehensive, because there is no element of selection and because the school happens to be in a poorer part of the city, it is likely that my son would have to share his classroom with some very troubled and disruptive students. For me, that is the deal breaker. I have repeatedly observed lessons being derailed by poor behaviour. I have also noticed how, over time, the disruptive students exert a pull over others who would otherwise behave, and encourage them to misbehave too. To clarify things, although I have worked in an official capacity at this school for only a week, I also volunteered there last year for half a term. So I do know what I am talking about.

When it comes to the grammar school debate, I can understand many of the arguments against them. I can see that they do very little for social mobility and that they have a negative effect on the neighbouring schools by creaming off the most talented, effectively turning them into secondary moderns. I understand all this and yet, as a mother myself, I have sympathy for those other parents crying out for a grammar school to open in their area so they don’t have to send their precious child to a school like mine. They want an element of selection so their child can be in a classroom with pupils that will exert an upward pull on them, not a downward one.

And that element of selection is already there, though not officially so. Schools in expensive areas, such as the one in leafy Surrey that I volunteered at briefly, are comprehensive in name only. Other schools deal with the problem by aggressively streaming or setting the students in most subjects. An Ofsted Outstanding school I know of assesses the students at the start of the year and then separates them into seven ability groups. That is surely a grammar school system by the back door.

Let’s have a bit more honesty in the debate and talk about the real issue, which is that of poor behaviour and how that can damage the educational chances of others. I don’t pretend to have the answers. I don’t think opening more grammar schools is the solution either. As for my son’s choice of secondary school, well we’re the lucky ones. If need be, we can afford to go private or move to a better catchment area. Others are not so lucky.