The Dangers of the Superteacher Model

Superhero_AThere is a certain type of book in which superteachers are held before our eyes as the example to follow. They work all hours, organise wonderful trips, create their own resources, produce professional quality theatre and musical extravaganzas . . .

I am sure such people exist, and I don’t want to criticise any of their wonderful work, or question their dedication and commitment. But they do not make good role models for other teachers, and they do not show the way forward for large scale school improvement.

Most teachers are seeking some kind of balance in their life between work and other things. I have five young children, and this obviously means that there are many things I must do outside work. Work cannot swallow up my whole life, and it should not. There is a moral imperative for those with families to achieve some kind of reasonable trade-off.

But there is another problem with the superteacher model. It focuses our attention on the extraordinary achievements of one individual, when what is needed for large scale school improvement is a corporate model of excellence.

It should not require an extraordinary charismatic individual to achieve discipline in a classroom. With proper school-wide systems and firm support from senior management, it should be perfectly possible for an ordinary person to do this, just by working faithfully and consistently and applying the practices which the school has corporately agreed. A teacher who quietly gets on with their job and obeys the rules that the school has put in place will not write any bestselling books, but this is the kind of teacher who, in the right school setting, will be able to go on working faithfully year after year, making a difference to the lives of countless young people.

Equally, individual teachers creating their own wonderful resources from scratch is not the model for large scale school improvement. Corporate agreement on high quality resources that are proven to work is what is needed. Once resources have been acquired, they must be consistently applied across the school, so that pupils can make steady and coherent progress. There’s no glamour in this, just faithful hard work and quiet commitment to duty.

Thrilling extracurricular activities can also be a serious distraction. Full time teaching is a demanding and difficult job, even in a school with proper discipline systems and agreed-upon resources. It should take up all of the working hours of a conscientious teacher (all of the working hours, not all of the hours God sends). If a teacher is expected to do large amounts of jazzy extracurricular activities, one of two things is happening: either their teaching is suffering, or they are being required to work unreasonable hours.

So we don’t need charismatic revivalists who trumpet their extraordinary efforts. We need an army of quiet, conscientious and dutiful teachers who are determined to improve education on a large scale, not just in their own exceptional classroom.

Further reading:

We Need Good Schools to Help Us Become Good Teachers

Traditional Methods Can Be Simple, Sustainable and Effective

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Healthy Eating for the Mind

AppleSometimes people object to medicine’s being used as an analogy for education. They point out that there are many differences and many ways in which the two areas of policy are not comparable. It is always possible to attack an analogy in this way, simply because analogy works by comparing two things that are alike in some ways, but different in others. Those who wish to understand and appreciate the analogy focus on similarities, while those who wish to undermine it focus on the differences. To complain that the analogy doesn’t work because there are important differences between its component parts, is to to complain that it doesn’t work because it is an analogy. Unless analogy is completely avoided as a method of reasoning, there will always be tensions which can be exploited by opponents.

Medical analogies have many uses when examining education. They serve a corrective purpose. Our culture tends to be far more doctrinaire in physical than in rational matters. To put dangerous substances into the body is universally condemned, and you won’t find a single doctor recommending it. But to read books that are poorly reasoned, badly written, or just plain inaccurate, is not so widely frowned upon. Many who would be very careful about reading the ingredients on a packet of food take no such precautions before diving into a book, and even swallowing its contents whole. The health of the body and the health of the mind both need to be considered, but the latter currently gets very little attention, at least at the level of preventative medicine.

Medical analogies help to correct ideas about authority. When dealing with an illness, we would not go to the internet to look up our symptoms, diagnose ourselves and then buy medicine from Ebay. We do not consider ourselves to be sufficiently expert to distinguish between good information and bad, and when our health is at stake, we want advice from someone with knowledge and authority. Again, it is clear that we are not so careful when it comes to the health of the mind. Many consider it quite acceptable, and even to be encouraged, that we should fill our minds with suspect information from uncertain sources, and attempt to make a ‘diagnosis’ about topics as diverse as science, history and politics, when we lack the knowledge or the expertise to do so.

Medical research can be compared to educational research. Would a drug be trialled on just one small group of patients, without a control sample, before being unleashed on the general public with government approval and large amounts of government funding? This is what has happened repeatedly in education, but whatever the disputes over medical treatments, such laxity would be considered malpractice, worthy of removing the culprits from the profession. Once again, we see how physical health is treated with much greater care and professionalism than the health of the mind.

Malpractice is a very serious issue in any profession, but considering it in medicine does help to clarify our thinking. A poor doctor could just be a bit lazy and disorganised. That could be enough to kill a few patients each year. Would that be acceptable? This can help us clarify our own responsibility as teachers. Are we really convinced that we know enough about our subject, that we are organised enough and consistent enough in our approach? This is not about making unreasonable demands on teachers. On the contrary, we need to be convinced that the responsibilities we have are not excessively demanding, because if they are, we will not carry them out effectively. No-one would want to be operated upon by an exhausted surgeon. Why should children have their minds operated upon by exhausted teachers?

There are many other ways in which medicine and education can be compared, but the key message is about seriousness and responsibility. Young minds are even more important than young bodies. It is possible to lead a fulfilled and useful life without perfect physical health, but with an ignorant and arrogant mind, can anyone live a truly human life, let alone a good one?

Chinese Experiments and British Culture

China-flag-snd.svgThe ‘experiment’ whereby Chinese teachers were imported into a British secondary school gained a lot of media attention, led, of course, by the BBC, who set the whole thing up. Of course, ‘experiment’ is not the right word for such a crass exercise. There was nothing scientific about the project whatsoever: no gathering of objective data, no control samples, not even an identifiable research goal beyond creating entertainment.

It wasn’t as if the BBC reporters were pushing progressive methods explicitly, but this article is a classic example of how a deeply ingrained ideology has become so internalised that it doesn’t need to be justified. It is just considered normal, and common sense.

We can see where the article is going very quickly. ‘Lessons were focused on note-taking and repetition’, claims the author. Note the word ‘focused’, as if the note taking and repetition were an end in themselves. This is a classic mistake: to confuse activities with learning. The note taking and repetition were the obvious, immediate and ‘foreign’ aspects of the lessons, which grabbed the observer’s attention. But why were the teachers using note taking and repetition? Could it be because they are proven and simple methods for inculcating knowledge firmly? But that point of view is never heard.

The headteacher of the school where the experiment was held admits that he saw some impressive things on his visit to China, including ‘immaculate behaviour’. Their academic results are, of course, widely recognised. But at the same time he refers to the ‘interminable monotony’ of Chinese education. He has clearly made up his mind about the Chinese system long before the ‘experiment’ begins. He refers to ‘teenage British culture and values’ as clashing with the Chinese approaches, which he calls ‘incarceration’. With someone like this in charge, the whole exercise appears nothing more than a method of showing how nasty and tyrannical the Chinese are, and how nice and tolerant we Brits are in comparison. I do find it hilarious how Western liberals can indulge in dogmatic cultural imperialism under the banner of ‘tolerance’.

Actually, according to any civilised standard of hospitality and good manners, the pupils at the school were being rude and disrespectful to their guests, but instead of reacting with horror and shame, our tolerant headteacher refers to this as their ‘culture and values’, which requires that their views be listened to with ‘respect’.

But what has created these ‘values’, if not an education system which has placed the child at the centre, demanding that their voice be heard, instead of listening to those who are older and wiser? These young people have been taught that it is their opinion that counts, and that it is the teacher’s job to grab their attention, rather than its being their duty to give it. As a result, many of them remain ignorant and arrogant, and it is an ignorance and arrogance which cannot be punctured by crass media exercises like this one. A well taught pupil of progressive methods puts it thus:

‘I’m used to speaking my mind in class, being bold, giving ideas, often working in groups to advance my skills and improve my knowledge.’

A few cracks did appear in the progressive indoctrination of the pupils, though. The headteacher grudgingly admits that some pupils actually began to enjoy note taking and listening to lectures:

‘They liked having to copy “stuff” from the board as they thought this would help them remember it. Some more able pupils also liked the lecture style of the Chinese classroom.’

The implications are clear. They thought copying would help them remember, poor misguided fools. And only ‘more able’ pupils can cope with these methods. Of course, the less able cannot be expected to listen to explanations from the front. They must be given differentiated worksheets to make sure they stay well behind everyone else.

Meanwhile, the only pupil interviewed in the article calls the teaching methods nothing but ‘dull lectures’ which left her ‘very tired and very bored’. The only bits she liked were the fan dancing and the cookery classes. Well, perhaps she is a kinaesthetic learner, and those mean, nasty Chinese teachers didn’t take that into account. Or perhaps they just expected her to listen and work hard? Not something she is accustomed to, evidently. As a ‘normal’ British teenager, she is interested in ‘my sleep and my freedom’.

At least the article ends with a Chinese view, and there is much food for thought here. Evidently lectures were not the exclusive method used, whatever the headteacher claims:

‘When I first introduced Pythagoras’s theorem, I decided to let the students find the proposition, prove and apply the theorem. That process is an important feature of maths teaching in China.
But a lot of students said they found it unnecessary to prove Pythagoras’s theorem – knowing how to apply it was enough.’

When they are not lecturing, the Chinese teachers are asking the pupils to do something demanding, which requires thought and effort.

No hard work please – we’re British.

(Image from Wikimedia).

The Dangerous Fantasy of Generalised Understanding

Michael Fordham and Greg Ashman have recently blogged about the distinction between knowledge and understanding, a distinction which has often been used to denigrate what is referred to as ‘mere’ knowledge.

Michael Fordham points out that the supposedly ‘higher’ cognitive phenomenon which is labelled understanding actually means more detailed and more complex knowledge, as well as the knowledge of how one fact links to another. At the highest level, this detailed and complex knowledge, along with the knowledge of relevant connections, is achieved by experts over many years of study.

In contrast, the type of abstract of conceptual knowledge which is often labelled ‘understanding’ is low on detail. It might be termed generalised knowledge, and it is actually much quicker to master than the large amounts of detail which a genuine expert has at his fingertips. It’s so short on content that you might even learn it through group work, with a few prods to point you in the right direction.

Even at a basic level, we can see this in operation. If we consider arithmetic, we can say that mastering the concept of addition requires very little specific knowledge. On the other hand, it takes lots of laborious practice to make number bonds truly automatic, because there are so many, and automacity takes so long to build.

The idea of addition, the concept that by combining two numbers you end up with a higher number that is the sum of the numbers added, is quite abstract, and it might seem more sophisticated to articulate this concept than to memorise number bonds. But a general definition is much less valuable than the ability to return an answer to a number bond automatically, without thinking. And as Michael Fordham points out, these are not two fundamentally different things, knowledge and understanding: they are just two different types of knowledge, one generalised and abstract, the other much more concrete and applicable to specific situations.

The idea that generalised concepts are somehow higher than specific applications, and that general knowledge is more valuable than large amounts of detail, is an idea which privileges management over technical ability, as I have written about here. It is not an idea which encourages hard work and application; instead, it elevates those who present smooth and credible vagueness and generalisation and leave the hard work of the details to others.

Ultimately, praising so-called conceptual knowledge over hard, specific information encourages us to live in a fantasy world, in which the boring details can always be left to somebody else. In fact, it is the world of television and film, which always edit out the tedious effort of piecing together details in a criminal investigation, or piecing together evidence in scientific research. Instead, a fictional Stephen Hawking gazes into glowing coals and the next day has a eureka moment and comes up with his theory of everything.

This is the fantasy of the individual Romantic hero, questing for the transcendent and the sublime, or the revolutionary guerilla, transforming society with just a Kalashnikov, a colourful bandanna and a few glamorous slogans; it is dangerous nonsense.

As Hannah Arendt does, we should ask the deeper question about why these ideas are so popular. Why should a culture embrace concepts that undermine hard work and the mastering of objective knowledge? Could it be that we have privileged the subjective over the objective, and ceased to believe that there is any definite and certain knowledge to master?

Can One Teach Traditionally and yet Reject Tradition?

Hannah Arendt wrote in 1954 about the crisis in American education, where already children were being given autonomy and the idea of learning through play was beginning to dominate. It was clear to her that the progressive methods were failing to produce capable and knowledgeable citizens, and she asked the more fundamental question: why would a culture embrace methods so evidently in conflict with common sense? She asked the deeper question, pointing out that unless this were addressed, progressive methods would dominate perpetually, simply being reinvented and dressed up in new scientific terminology, but never truly rejected.

Her answer to this deeper question about modern Western culture is very revealing. She points out that in the modern world, tradition and authority are rejected, and the past is not seen as the model for the future. This rejection of tradition and authority is, in her view, right and proper in the ‘grown-up’ world. And yet it must not be allowed to influence education, if we want education to be effective, because education is intrinsically a conservative activity. It passes on a definite body of knowledge which must be mastered. Without that certainty, and without the authority of the previous generation backing it up, childhood autonomy and the resulting ignorance will prevail.

Arendt therefore insists that education remain conservative, even while the culture at large continues to reject tradition and the authority of the past.

But is this actually possible? Can it be expected that we should produce sufficient numbers of teachers who, while rejecting tradition personally, are happy to use it professionally, for a pragmatic goal? Will teachers be able to cope with the cultural, even moral, schizophrenia that such a position implies?

What I have noticed happening is that an increasing number of teachers are actually becoming more traditional in outlook. This should not surprise us, because we do often end up believing in what we practise.

Discipline is one area which makes this tendency clear. While the majority of British parents remain fairly liberal in the way they discipline their children, more and more schools are embracing a no excuses culture, and seeking to build traditional moral virtues such as fortitude and temperance in their pupils, although they will often avoid using words like ‘moral’ or ‘virtue’. Almost without realising it, or reflecting on it, their outlook is becoming increasingly traditional.

Schools are doing this because it actually works. And before long, teachers immersed in this professional culture may well begin to reflect on whether it works because it is based on a true understanding of human nature, while progressive methods are based on lies. But then again, words like ‘true’ and ‘lies’ are as difficult to use nowadays as words like ‘moral’ and ‘virtue’.