Monday, 14 March 2011

Step up Jamie Oliver...

Once again it befalls the world of the 'celebrity expert' to highlight what educationalists have been saying for.......well, EVER! The trouble with repeating the same old mantra over and over and getting nowhere is that evetually you just sound as though you're moaning. This is the position that teachers have found themselves in for a long time now, if you repeat the truth often enough you officially become a disturber of the peace, a blocker! In this case the mantra for...well, ever, has been that teaching is 90% knowing how to relate to and communicate with the children or young adults in front of you; that it requires imagination, innovation, respect for research in the field and no small amount of resilience. Of the other 10%, I'd say 9% of it is patience, leaving just 1% for how much you know about your subject. 90% relationship? What a bleeding-heart lefty I must be! Wait... is this progressive talk? Nope, I've just had my shins kicked enough times by nine year olds and seen enough chairs launched into orbit across classrooms to know that you have to find ways of teaching the children you've got, not the children you wish they were.

Step up Jamie Oliver! Only two episodes into this series and already I am predicting that this show is going to demonstrate exactly what I'm talking about. The premise appears to be that the way to inspire a group of teenagers who, in the words of David Starky "did not get the magic five!" (GCSEs at C and above) is to sign up a truck load of experts in their various fields to be their teachers. Seems to make sense. You could call it the 'horse's mouth' method. If you want to know about about politics, get it from the horse's mouth (no offence intended Alistair), if you want to know about shakespeare, visit Simon Callow's stable, and so on. The problem here, well one of them at least, is that the Horse's Mouth Method (now in capitals as I have officially invented it) presupposes that knowledge is what these young people need. That what differentiates them from their 'magic five'-getting peers is not knowing enough stuff.

Of course not knowing stuff is a only by-product of one or two more pressing needs for these young people and others in their position. So, acknowledging that school can only do so much, here are few examples. Self belief, the real stuff, not the bravado on display in each lesson so far but a genuine, authentic and grounded belief in their own capacity to fulfill their potential. Trust, in the institution of education, in their teachers and most crucially, in themselves. A sense that they are people of value who can produce things (products, ideas, opinions etc) of value, and finally a positive self-image. For almost all these young adults there is a veritable Grand Canyon between their ideal selves and their actual self-images. Ultimately they don't believe they can amount to anything.

The futility of expertise has been demonstrated beautifully in every lesson so far. Most notably by Mr Starky. Can there be anyone who knows more about history than him? Could you hope to find a more decorated and qualified man to teach the subject than he? Unfortunately his expertise lies in the wrong area. Give me an expert on relating to young people and a history textbook every time. You see you can find out what you have to teach, and if you know a little about teaching you can plan ways of learning. But if you don't understand children and young people you're wasting everybody's time. Fair play to the Cambridge Prof, he came back and dug deep and it was better in the next lesson. What did he do that made it better? He built a bridge with the child he insulted. There it is.....relationship.

Mr Gove is conspicuous by his absence from this series. Can you imagine how his stock would have soared if he had stumped up? 'New Strategy - Education Secretary Tries Actual Teaching.' Based on his current rhetoric though I'm guessing he'd have cut his lesson plan from the same cloth as Professor Starky. But, no doubt he'd have shown similar resilience too and eventually realised that his White Paper (subtitled "It never did me any harm!") needed some revisions. Sadly, we can only hope that one day one of his successors has, or is prepared to seek, some experience in the everyday world of the teacher.

I have every confidence that things will get better at the Dream School, after all, what would the producers do with all those 'things are getting better' music clips and over emotional vox pops if they didn't? What a waste that would be! Things will get better, and Dream School will no doubt prove to have been a useful leg up for some of the young people ('s celebrity careers - harsh?). But when the dust settles and Jamie starts thinking about his next mission (Middle East?) the only conclusion can be that time was the crucial factor. And what happens over time? Relationships develop.

Teaching and learning is intersubjective and it is dynamic. The art of the teacher has relatively little to do with what you know, unless what you know is how to steer that tricky path between being the pupils' friend (not your job) and being an oracle (also not your job).

Sunday, 3 October 2010

You can call me Al

So..... the issue of teachers' first names rears its head again, and the community message board on the TES website goes balistic with rants about the end of civilisation as we know it and the collapse of 'decent' society. But what are presented as the voices of reason and 'good old fashioned values' are in fact the last gasps of the fearful and insecure.

"It's all about respect" we're told, or use of surnames keeps "appropriate distance" between us and the children. Well, it would be amiss of me on my own blog not give my opinion about this. You see, for the last five years as a primary teacher I was called Ben by my pupils. As a school we changed to first name terms in 2004, and never looked back.

There are a few things I'd be prepared to bet about those who think this move heralds the demise of pupil teacher respect. Number one, they've not experienced it themselves, number two, they have a misconception about the origins and nature of respect. And, as a suplimentary bet (against my house) I'd wager these are the suit and tie wearers with the teacher's desks and the almost scripted planning sheets. You see, it's all about control, the fear of losing it and a false belief that respect comes from these outward trappings.

Put simply, respect comes not from how business-like you look, how deep your voice is, how tall you are, how loud you can be or for that matter, how young and 'down with the kids' you try to be. Respect is far to faithful a mistress to waste her time with such trivialities. Rather, she bestows herself because of decidedly more fundamental attributes, things you can't put on in the morning or write onto a planning proforma. Things like the content of your character, the fairness with which you treat children, the consistency with which you set boundaries and the interest you show in them as people.

When I was known as Mr Knight, it was a show of respect that children referred to me as Mr Knight. They addressed me as I asked to be addressed. When I became Ben, it continued to be a demonstration of respect that children addressed me in the way I asked them to, as Ben. Obviously, as with any new boundary or regime, there will always be a few who test it out. And yes, one child did try his luck with a 'Benjy' within the the first week or so. But putting that down swiftly actually served as a useful marker for him and all the others in the class.

What worries me about the TES responses is what it reveals about the levels of insecurity within the profession. The tentative grasp teachers feel they have on the locus of control in their classrooms and the lack of understanding it shows of the crucial role that relationship plays in education. Perhaps with less time spent choosing which tie to wear and more given to discovering and walking the true pathways to respect, we as a profession will earn more of it from the world outside of education.

Now, where did I put that Guardian suppliment?

Friday, 3 September 2010

The Big Dangerous Book of Literacy for Boys!!

OK, so let me begin by saying that I love Gareth Malone. I think he's great. All that work convincing teenage boys that singing, rather than being "gay" is in fact the best of things. Love it! I certainly don't resent him for his recent excursion into the world of teaching literacy to ten and eleven year old boys in London. I have no doubt that his 'trust me, I know I sound posh, but really I'm just one of you' countenance will work just as well on reluctant writers as it does on their singing equivalents. No, I really like Gareth and don't blame him for what I'm about to write.

But why, oh why do we need Gareth Malone to point out the bloody obvious? Any teacher worth their salt knows that, on the whole, boys don't want to sit down and write, that teaching using a 'one size fits all' approach for everyone isn't ideal and that you don't stand a snowball's hope in hades of writing in clear English if you can't speak in it. These are not new insights. These are the oldest insights in the book. This is page one of chapter one.

If this isn't happening in primary schools (and incidentally, it isn't) it is because successive governments have tied teachers' hands tighter and tighter behind their backs, clogged up their creative planning time with mindless paper trails of evidence and embraced an American style blame culture in which headteachers have no choice but add almost daily to the growing 'not list' of activities about which "risk assessment says no!"

Teaching these days is entirely about compliance and fear. Creativity has gone, teachers' professional judgements have eroded away and all that is left is a heavily prescribed curriculum, endless targets and the audacity of inspectors bestowed with the power to judge a lesson as being "'satisfactory' with elements of 'good'." When your pay and professional future depend on such judgments and the outcomes of test results, it takes a brave (or more likely subversive) teacher to take their pupils out for a tree climbing session. Unfortunately, subversive teachers rarely last in the profession because they realise they are banging their heads against the grand daddy of all brick walls.

My strap line to the forthcoming Gareth'll fix it series?

'GM points out what teachers intuitively know already, but have had beaten out of them by years of centralised government control.'

Thursday, 20 May 2010

The cart and the horse

I have said to a few colleagues this year that if I went back into the classroom in September, having spent just one year in ITE, I would be a better teacher. Better because a year of teaching about the big theories which have shaped education over the last century has reminded me that I once new them quite well. I certainly remember beginning my career all those years ago with a determination to teach in particular ways and with a sense of which approaches I held with and which I wasn't so sure about.

After eleven years of 'doing it' in the primary classroom though I had become frustrated. Over the course of this year the the reasons for that frustration have gradually become more clear, to the point where I can now say with some confidence that the vacuum of ideas, values and philosophy had alienated me. The current culture in education is one in which teachers are forced to be goal driven. We look at what we are expected to achieve and everything we do is aimed at this.

I can't remember the last time, whilst teaching, I sat down with colleagues and discussed what we collectively valued or believed was important, or established common philosophies as a starting point for curriculum development. I don't think I even heard the word 'Pedagogy' after graduating! Practice was driven by desired outcomes, almost never by beliefs. We look at our eventual goal and say "we'll do x or y to achieve it." We never say "this is what we believe, therefore we'll do x or y". The semantic difference between these two approaches is a small one. The difference in practice is vast. Especially when you consider that many of the goals themselves are being set by someone else and read something like.... 'All pupils must make progress in the (1 hr) lesson,' something any teacher will tell you is in itself a nonsense.

So, I ask, where's the pedagogy? Where are the educational beliefs? How did our profession, which is a wonderful mixture of psychology, sociology, physical, emotional and neurological development lose touch with ideas and become dominated by pragmatism?

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

What were we thinking??

Let's imagine you, as an employee, were monitored, judged and valued against a set of assessments whose outcomes you had only partial control over. Let's also assume that you were remunerated according to these same outcomes. And let's, for argument's sake, assume that the criteria for these assessments were inconsistent with the realities of performing your daily routines and that they ignored a range of key determining factors, well outside of your control. Now let's add into the mix the idea that others would be using these outcomes to make judgments about you and the quality of your work, many of whom have little or no real idea what you job entails or how your institution operates; and others who once did your job, but not well enough to keep doing it, now use these assessment outcomes to make judgements about you. And finally, just for good measure, we'll imagine that a list was published every year which compared you and your work place against all the others who do the same work.

Now let's imagine that you had the opportunity to choose not to do those assessments. Wouldn't you jump at the chance??? To keep doing your job well, in dialogue with you colleagues about how maintain the quality of your work. Developing from the inside, based on the values and philosophies that you hold dear.

Only 15% of primary schools in England opted to boycott SATs this year. 15%!!! The proverbial spanner was dangled near the wheel, but decidedly not shoved in!