We’re Here to Work

G._K._Chesterton_at_work

Chesterton, who perceived that big government and big business both contribute to modern misery.

A friend of mine who teaches year six commented that many parents of primary age children see school merely as an interruption in the important business of childhood, which is to play. Effectively, school is stealing childhood from their children.

This attitude is well established in schools, but continues into adulthood, because in a consumer society our main purpose is to buy more and more toys to keep the wheels of mass production turning. Like a spoiled child on Christmas day, we play with a new toy for five minutes until the next exciting thing comes up. You’ve got to have the latest model!

As mass production is mechanised and requires little human capital, the skills required of most workers are managerial, intellectual, or mindless. You’re either managing a store, programming a computer, or stacking shelves / flipping burgers / pushing buttons. If by any chance you’re too lazy to push buttons, never fear, because there is another vital role for such as you: you will become a client of the state, and support the jobs of countless bureaucrats and busybodies.

This is the life for which our education system prepares our children. They should either be supervising shelf-stackers, or stacking shelves themselves. A few very clever ones will write computer programmes that direct the arrangement of products on the shelves to catch the consumers’ eyes. A few ‘creative’ ones will create advertisements to manipulate consumers into believing they need useless things.

In any case, we all need to be good little cogs in the machine, and infantile guzzlers of what the machine produces, to keep those wheels turning, and keep the profit margins healthy for the City shareholders.

It’s wrong, therefore, to say our education system is letting children down, if by that we mean that it is not preparing them for the society in which we live. In fact, it prepares them very well for the roles assigned to them as consumers, button pushers, managers, and clients of the state.

What’s missing for most people is satisfying, meaningful work done within a community. The industrial revolution, followed by globalisation, has rendered that largely irrelevant. But it is in this that deeper happiness is to be found. Entertainment is passive, and excludes the one being entertained. They do not participate; they merely consume. But work, especially work done within a well organised community of skilled labourers, brings a deeper, shared satisfaction.

Satisfying, meaningful work done within a community. That’s what’s going on in a well-ordered classroom, and it’s what goes on in a family working together on the household chores. That’s why such places are deeply subversive.

As long as we think we’re here to amuse ourselves, our education system will reflect that. This lie about what constitutes our happiness suits big business and big government very well. We have to fight against it at every level: in the education system, in our families, in politics, in economics. G K Chesterton saw this very clearly a century ago. He pointed out that nothing solid can be built upon

‘the unphilosophical philosophy of blind buying and selling; of bullying people into purchasing what they do not want; of making it badly so that they may break it and imagine they want it again; of keeping rubbish in rapid circulation like a duststorm in a desert; and pretending that you are teaching men to hope.’ (The Well and Shallows).

We’ve had our happiness stolen from us in a bid to boost the profits of banks and shareholders, and the power of central government.

We’re here to work, not to be entertained, and it is in work well done that we find real happiness.

Why Bother with Recent Literature?

Paradise Lost Title Page

‘The World was all before them, where to choose . . .’

Until recently, the teaching of English was dominated by literature written in the last fifty to a hundred years. Key stage three cupboards tended to be full of accessible teen page turners such as Stone ColdCarrie’s War or Millions. GCSE teaching was as modern as the national curriculum permitted, with Of Mice and Men becoming almost obligatory. The only exception was Shakespeare, which was usually televised as much as possible.

With an increased focus on literature from the past, we are starting to a see a liberation from this imprisonment in the present. But that’s not the way many teachers see the curriculum changes. They are alarmed and anxious. They worry that older literature will fail to appeal to their pupils. It’s just not ‘relevant’ enough.

Its alien nature is precisely the point. Education is about providing our pupils with knowledge and experiences that they would not otherwise encounter. They are much more likely to read The Hunger Games in their spare time than Charles Dickens or George Orwell. That’s why we should be teaching them Dickens and Orwell, not the latest dystopian fantasy thriller.

In fact, I would question whether it is worth including anything written in the last fifty years in the English curriculum. We have limited time with our pupils, and every minute is precious. We need to make hard choices about what to include in our teaching. We have a duty to make the most efficient use of every lesson to provide the most knowledge and understanding, that will serve our pupils the best for the rest of their lives. This is especially true for those pupils who come from houses with no bookshelves, but lots of electronic gadgets.

Every lesson spent studying a contemporary poet is a lesson not spent studying Donne, or Milton, or Wordsworth. Every lesson spent reading Carrie’s War is a lesson not spent reading Beowulf. The classics from the past have been around for centuries, and have influenced countless authors who came later. If we give our pupils a familiarity with these, they will have a richer understanding of any contemporary literature they choose to read. But when we are making the choice, we should be focusing on the older stuff. It’s just more important.

That’s why the new English curriculum doesn’t go far enough. The exam board anthologies have generous selections of contemporary poetry, but they only go back as far as the Romantics. What of the centuries of great poetry written before William Blake? Surely it is more important to study that than to read contemporary poets? How can we claim that at least some familiarity with, for example, Paradise Lost, is less important than reading Sophie Hannah, or Grace Nichols?

I am not arguing that there is no value in contemporary literature. It is simply a matter of recognising opportunity costs, and making prudent choices for the benefit of our pupils. The study of contemporary literature should be left for university. The school’s job is to build a solid general foundation on which later, more specialised study can be built.

Against Analysis, or Why William Doesn’t Engage the Reader

William Wordsworth

‘William’s language is a bit old-fashioned, innit?’

Why is analysis introduced so early in the English curriculum? Instead of reading lots of challenging material that builds knowledge and vocabulary, from an early stage, pupils begin picking shorter texts to pieces and offering ‘personal responses’ to them.

You can’t do both, of course. You must choose between breadth and depth in the study of literature. At the level of general education (before pupils choose to go down a specialised academic path leading to studying that subject at university – in other words, before A level), breadth is the important thing. Pupils should be building a wide knowledge of the great stories and characters that are their cultural inheritance. Building up such knowledge does, of course, greatly improve their own reading and writing, which depend so much on breadth of knowledge and vocabulary.

Requiring that pupils produce literary essays for GCSE is mistaken. If pupils are going to do this, they have to spend a disproportionate amount of time practising the skill of essay writing, and the vast majority will get no further than a shallow simulation of expertise. This is all time in which they could have been acquiring cultural literacy that would have served them well whatever they chose to do next, whether A levels and university or a non-academic path.

What’s even worse is the amount of time that is being dedicated to analysis lower down the curriculum. Pupils who have never memorised a serious poem in their lives are being required to analyse the figurative techniques used by a poet. All of this time being spent on a narrow, specialised skill, is time lost to building up broad knowledge that is of use to everybody, whatever their later educational or academic choices.

It also gets frustratingly repetitive. You analyse imagery in year five, and year six, and year seven, and on, and on, and on. You spend many hours painfully squeezing out pretend literary essays, when you could have been learning so much about literature and history, and experiencing the genuine satisfaction that comes from mastering powerful knowledge.

The premature emphasis upon analysis is an example of the ‘skills over knowledge’ approach privileged by progressive ideology. In this approach, it doesn’t really matter what you read, as long as you are developing ‘critical skills’. So by the end of eleven or more years of general education, you know next to nothing about important literature or history, but you can trot out phrases like ‘The author’s use of imagery engages the reader’. And that’s the conscientious ones. Often it’s more like ‘I think William’s language doesn’t engage the reader because it’s old fashioned’. There you go, there’s an evaluation for you. Right at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy, if you please.

The irony is that in the name of building ‘thinking skills’, progressive educators are wasting the time of pupils, and denying them precisely the knowledge that will enable them to think more effectively for the rest of their life. Pupils are being left with empty heads and the vague idea that any opinion is valid, as long as you can justify it. The spouting of ignorant opinions cannot be the basis of sound rational thinking. Reason must be rooted in reality; it must be based on objective knowledge.

During those eleven years of general education, pupils should be absorbing powerful knowledge, and the tests they take, which should be done every year, should be checking that they have learned and understood this knowledge, not making them ‘evaluate the success’ of a poet’s techniques (or how reliable a historical source is, for that matter). It’s really quite hilariously misguided to expect a sixteen year old to ‘evaluate’ whether Williams Shakespeare, Wordsworth or Blake have ‘engaged the reader’ with their imagery. Such evaluations can only be made by those with expert knowledge of poetry, which takes years of specialised study to acquire.

‘Evaluation’ should be left for postgraduates. Thorough understanding is the aim of general education.

My Experience of Ofsted Madness

Checkbox_1.svgTired of staring at a computer screen most of the day and sending emails to people sitting a few yards away, I had returned to teaching after several years out of the profession, and found a job in a nearby comprehensive.

I was going in with my eyes open. I expected there to be plenty of challenges; that was one of the reasons I had quit the office job: I wanted challenge. But I was not prepared for the Ofsted madness.

I had never worked in a school with so many meetings. Countless hours of staff time were taken up, sitting in the school library listening to senior managers and looking at PowerPoint presentations, many of which were filled with tables, charts and graphs of data. At first this was just irritating. I had work to do. Much as I rather enjoyed sitting at the back with the muttering cynics, there were more productive things that I could have been doing with my time.

But then I realised that this was far beyond irritating; this was sinister. We were being told how to teach ‘outstanding’ lessons. This meant we had to teach in a certain way, because that was what Ofsted considered to be ‘outstanding’. We were shown Dale’s Cone of Experience and told that if we talked, our pupils would learn little. When I pointed out that the percentages on the cone were a fabrication, I was told that it just made sense that pupils would retain little of what a teacher said. Surely it was self-evidently better that they be ‘actively engaged’ in their learning, not ‘passive’, listening to the teacher.

I had been given a bottom set year eleven to prepare for GCSE, and I sensed that some sort of weird performance was required. So when observed by my head of department, I brought in a soft toy to tick the VAK box as we discussed Lennie in Of Mice and Men. Unfortunately, I often taught this group, which was being targeted for ‘intervention’, in the room next to the head of department’s office. She listened in through the wall and regularly ticked me off for failing to use the methods that would ‘get a pass’ for these pupils. She wheeled in the LA advisor to show me how it was done. The whole lesson was focused on exam technique, as the broadly grinning lady from the LA bounced around the room, talking to the pupils as if they were about six.

I failed to respond with wild enthusiasm. Soon my teaching was being branded ‘satisfactory’. At one point during a follow up meeting after an observation, I made the mistake of questioning why on earth we even cared about the tick list of the bureaucrats. Such thoughtcrime would not get me far. This was a school that had recently had a Mocksted, and the whole senior management team were single mindedly focused on that ‘outstanding’ grade.

Actually, I did need some professional support at the time. My methods were far from perfect. But the main reason for this was that I was still dogged by progressive ideas. I doubted whether it really was just to back up my authority with sanctions. I wondered whether explicit teaching really was that important. I still saw English as a skills based subject, so that it didn’t matter which texts you read, so long as you were developing your analytical skills. During my time at the school, I read some John Taylor Gatto, which pushed me further down the progressive, anti-authoritarian, anti-school way of thinking. I was rather receptive to anti-authority ideas, because I was suffering so much from abusive authority myself.

In the end, I resigned from that school, and I have been working in the independent sector ever since. I always said then, and I still say now, that it wasn’t the pupils who drove me away from teaching in a state comprehensive school. I was sad to say goodbye to them. It was the management who drove me away.

Although we were expecting them at any moment, Ofsted never came while I was there. They came a year or two later. And the grade, after all the countless hours of preparation? Good: the same as the previous inspection.

Who knows how much more learning could have taken place over those years if staff had focused on curriculum design, instead of wasting precious time playing this ridiculous game.

How Different Are Independent Schools?

MK17839_Eton_College_Weston's_Yard

Are independent schools so very different? I would argue that the vast majority of the difference is cultural, rather than financial. It should be possible for a state school with strong enough leadership and a clear enough vision to build a culture as good – or better – than most independent schools. In fact, as I wrote after my visit to Michaela, I think it’s flattering independent schools to say that Michaela has a ‘private school ethos’. Michaela has a stronger commitment to a traditional knowledge-rich education and the formation of good habits than do most private schools, and a more coherent plan for delivering on this commitment.

I’ve worked in three state schools (all comprehensives), and three independent. The following are my highly unscientific reflections on the differences I have observed.

Staff in independent schools are, on the whole, grateful to their employers, and feel a sense of loyalty to the school. Staff absences are rare. Unless independent schools are miraculously preserved from the usual amount of the common cold virus, I would judge that this is because of this sense of loyalty and gratitude.

In comparison, I have seen relatively little loyalty or gratitude amongst staff in state schools. And I am not blaming the rank and file staff for this! I have seen a lot of the ‘us against them’ mentality, in which management are seen as there to make the lives of ordinary staff more difficult. Why should they feel any gratitude towards them, therefore?

This is one of the biggest contrasts, actually: the attitude towards management. Where management are tough and strict, staff in state schools will tend to appreciate them. They are pleased that the name of the senior manager strikes fear into the hearts of their pupils, because it is useful. It is a threat which pupils take seriously, if they are told that they might have to go to see the headteacher. On the other hand, if headteachers are liberal and slack, they are viewed with utter scorn by rank and file staff. Whatever they might try to do is not taken seriously. This is little commented upon. A weak headteacher’s impact on pupil discipline is often noted. But what about the impact on teacher motivation and loyalty?

In an independent school, there is not this urgent need for management to prove themselves. They can be nice and genteel, and perhaps a bit soft, but it just doesn’t matter so much. Senior management are seen more as colleagues, because there is not the horrendous behaviour problem to deal with. Still, the strictest and most well-organised central discipline system I have come across (outside Michaela!) was in the country boarding school where I worked about a decade ago.

Attitudes towards teaching methods vary hugely as well. In independent schools, there is little interest in applying the latest theory in the classroom; although senior management might talk about it, they do not enforce it in the way it is enforced in many state schools, where the mind police really go to town, and thoughtcrime certainly exists. As a result, teachers in independent schools just get on with doing what they think best. This doesn’t mean all the teaching is marvellous, by any means, but there is not the same stifling atmosphere of ideological conformity combined with bureaucratic box-ticking that I have seen in the state sector. The old traditionalists get on with it, and they are usually left to do so. They don’t get hounded out of the classroom by fear of a negative Ofsted judgement.

This laissez-faire attitude towards teaching methods has served independent schools fairly well so far, but it will get less and less effective as time goes on. The influence of progressive ideas is getting stronger, as more and more young teachers with PGCEs and state school educations join the independent school workforce. Just bumbling along is not going to be a strong enough defence against the tide of relativism, with its scepticism of knowledge and its resulting insistence upon politically correct conformity.

This is the overall picture of independent education. They have bumbled along, not changing too much, but still gradually dumbing down as the years go by. After all, most of them are doing the same, or similar, public examinations to those used in the state sector. Their syllabus is bound to be influenced, and their attitudes along with that. And there are so few people left nowadays who have received a rigorous education themselves, that as the old school retire, who will replace them?

Only those who have a clear vision for a knowledge-rich education and are determined to fight for it will be able to resist the encroachments of a culture committed to relativism and empty conformity. It may be that there are more visionary heads able to do this in the state sector than the independent in the decades to come. We shall see.

One thing is certain. It’s not the money, but the ideas and commitment of those who lead which make the difference.

(Image from Wikimedia)

Teachers Who Don’t Teach

Thanks to modern developments in science and technology, we have found many ways of removing the purpose or goal from our activities. The formerly fruitful activity is then replaced with a sterile simulation.

The point of fermentation used to be to produce alcohol, to gladden the heart of man. Now beer is produced in large quantities, only to be castrated and rendered harmless. In many other areas, we’ve made similar progress. You can now play football without exercising your limbs, drink coffee without stimulating your brain, eat food without calories, have sex without producing any children, and get married without making any lifelong commitment. You can even do philosophy without searching for truth.

But one of the most ludicrous examples of all is a teacher who doesn’t teach. There he is, in the classroom, just massaging the delicate egos of his pupils. He doesn’t want to hurt their feelings by drawing attention to their ignorance. We can rest assured that his pupils are safe from harm. They are happy and content in their emptiness, being prepared for a lifetime of consuming prepackaged simulacra.

I can’t think of many better examples of a culture with its balls cut off.

Making Sustained, Not Rapid Progress

Army BagThe things which are immediately appealing and convenient in the short term are rarely the things which endure.

I do a lot of travelling every day, so my rucksack is a particularly vital piece of equipment. I’ve noticed over the years that although they may be made out of fantastically tough material, modern rucksacks tend to wear out fairly quickly with heavy use, because the zips break.

Zips are wonderfully convenient. In a second, you can seal up a bag or a pocket. Even a very young child can learn to use them with very little practice. They are one of the great inventions of modern engineering.

But they break. So I scratched my head over where I could find a durable, zipless bag. At first I looked at retro bags with string ties at the top, which are enjoying something of a renaissance. But they didn’t look tough enough.

Finally I found the solution: army surplus. I now travel with a Cold War era army bag. It has no zips. Apart from the rope tie at the top, it has metal fasteners that are bombproof.

At first it was difficult to make the transition. I missed the speed and convenience of zips. But with repeated practice every day, it soon became second nature. My army bag and I are now fully integrated, and ready for a lifetime of travelling. No more broken zips.

Once we shun convenient quick fixes and grapple with something durable, we reap long term benefits. So chuck out The Hunger Games and get reading classics with your year nine classes. It will be a struggle at first, but it will be well worth it in the long term.

(Image from Wikimedia).