Tuesday, 10 March 2015

My morning with Michael...

Unless one counts educationalists as celebrities, I rarely come across celebrities in my day to day life.  I used to teach Alison Moyet's son, and very clever he was too.  Rowan Atkinson used to turn up to watch his son's matches in a McLaren F1 and I've talked all things English cricket with Mick Jagger as he came to watch his son make a first ball duck one pleasant sunny afternoon circa 2000.  We had fun-sized mars bars at cricket tea that day and it is one of my life's greatest regrets (thus far) that I didn't at least raise an eyebrow as he tucked in - so many witty asides to choose from, and I chose none.

I recently spent a few days with my wife in Tel Aviv, and I managed to run in to Michael Gove and family not once but three times during the course of our first full day there.  The fact that we saw no more Gove during the next two days are probably the result of him avoiding his one and only stalker.  We had the chance to chat briefly (I cornered him in a gift shop) and I told him what a fine job I thought he had done as education secretary.  He was very pleasant (as one might expect when receiving a compliment) and though I expect he was slightly disappointed that I teach at a selective 450-year old Boarding School and not a City Academy, he didn't let on.

Whether one agrees with Gove's approach/ideas/philosophy or not (and it is inevitable there will be members of both camps), I don't think anyone can argue to hard that the man is able, displayed integrity as education secretary and left people in little doubt of what he was trying to achieve (perhaps a hollow compliment, but not one that can be applied to many politicians).  I can't have been the only person to note the irony of DC choosing to replace Gove with Nicky Morgan at the same time as declaring a 'war on mediocrity' in education.  Gove clearly believed in the transformative power of education; the fact that cultural capital is not the preserve of the wealthy; that great works of art and literature are for all, not to be whisked away from 'kids like these'; that by focusing so much attention on the C/D GCSE boundary for English we adopt an overly-reductionist approach to the teaching of the subject; that it is important to pass on an educational 'tradition' that is strong in the key academic disciplines; that not all subjects offered at GCSE are equal and that chasing grades by offering a slew of non-academic courses does not represent valid educational practice; that attempting to gain grades by multiple re-sitting of the same papers at the expense of spending time on teaching and understanding is educationally corrupt.  

I have no idea whether literature from the C19 is beyond many children, but I do know that it is the job of teacher and parents to foster a sense of intellectual curiosity in their pupils/children and to make sure they retain an ambitious approach to learning.  I prefer to believe that you can teach virtually anything to anyone, at least at some level.  If the child is enthused, they are more likely to become an auto-didact, and learning doesn't just take place in School.  My experience of teaching tells me that rarely are children (or adults) working at capacity, and that when the bar is raised, most people are able to jump higher.  I have been amazed at the response of 13-year old pupils to T S Eliot this year - they may not have loved The Wasteland or understood all (much?) of it, but they've gained plenty from the text and all of the connections (Classics, History, Art) one can make to it.

Gove clearly failed to bring the vast majority of teachers on board with him.  He will be remembered at least as much for his utterances about 'enemies of promise' and 'the blob' as he will about the rhetoric that was supposed to empower teachers and to encourage them to be ambitious personally and ambitious for their pupils.  In the end, tone matters, and lots of teachers didn't much care for his.  It is unusual that so many teachers who can object to his combative logic consider it reasonable to launch personal attacks that are little to do with educational philosophy and more to do with their own emotional.  

I doubt that our paths will cross again, and certainly not any time soon, but the last I saw of him was enjoying a lengthy quiz with his children.  In half an hour over a family lunch, it was noticeable just how much knowledge was absorbed by the kids, and just how much they enjoyed it.  Each question from the top of his head was connected to the last, and a subtle build-up of of connected 'grammar' (in the Trivium sense) was palpable.  Maybe we're all guilty of thinking the world right in front of us can be extrapolated further and applied well beyond our immediate sphere, and admittedly they were his own children, but if he ever wanted a teaching job, I'd hire him like a shot.  

Sunday, 1 February 2015

FHM Knowledge and Loaded Skills

In the 'New Lad' heyday of the mid-90s, when cigarettes, alcohol and football were all you needed to be a 'ledge', one was presented with a binary choice for lad-based news: 'Loaded' and 'FHM' were the clear market-leaders.  Nuts and Zoo were a little too low-brow, aimed more at the 13-year olds lacking the confidence to buy pornographic magazines in their local WHSmiths and GQ was a little too high-brow, not to mention that fact that it contained fashion shoots involving men.

FHM and Loaded contained a glossy mix of supposedly true laddish tales, a 24 page glossy shoot of a lady whose first name ended in 'i', some sports and some music that it was ok for a lad to like (Oasis, Cast, Space etc).  A 'dilemmas' feature occasionally made an appearance, presumably to massage the grey matter of the readership.  This would include questions such as:

'Would you 'do' The Coors if you had to 'do' the bloke too?

Which would you prefer, a mermaid with the top half of a woman and the bottom half of a fish, or the top half of a fish and the bottom half of the woman?

If you could have ten points to spend on women, and supermodels were 10, women you knew were 2 and 'lucky dip' was 1, how would you spend your points?

If these aren't actual questions from FHM, they are close enough to the brain-teasers posed by the mag, and they make for a brand of rather tasteless sexism.  I think we've moved on.

However, these needless and pointless questions aren't so very different from the question of 'Knowledge v Skills'.  We have admittedly move into a more highbrow line of questioning (perhaps even beyond GQ's remit), but I don't think the dilemma is any more valid as a question.  It is surely desirable to have both.  It is even possible to possess 'skills' in isolation, without background knowledge?  It is certainly possible to hold in one's mind a large collection of disparate facts, which may be useful when it comes to questions of pure factual recall (pub quizzes) for example, but does this even constitute knowledge?  No-one articulates better what I mean than Richard Feynman - here he is talking about the difference between 'knowing the name of something, and knowing something':


It is clear that the people Feynman criticise possess a certain degree of knowledge, without the skills of analysis to make that knowledge useful. However, how can you begin to use your skills of analysis if you don't even know that it's a bird making the noise?

Knowledge and skills have little in common with the 'traditional v progressive' debate, though some may argue that the method of direct instruction favoured by those in the former category promotes the importance of knowledge and the pupil-centred approach favoured by the progressives promotes skills-based learning, but to look at things in these terms is too simplistic and binary (almost in the mold of an FHM article writer).  

Every teacher must agree that the passing on of knowledge is to some degree their raison d'etre - this is evident in the quote from Joseph O'Neill, who states that 'the human race refreshes itself in complete ignorance'.  However, no teacher would ever intend to pass on that knowledge without making connections between the material being delivered.  I watched the marvellous BBC4 series 'A Tale of Three Cities' last night, which focused on Paris in 1928.  The series moved effortlessly around the Culture, Politics, Art, Architecture and Music of the City, all placed in clear historical context.  I can't imagine how one could have appreciated the programme without knowledge of how these things came to be, but it takes a certain degree of skill to understand how these things are connected.  'Only Connect' has been the theme of my Third Form teaching this year, and I have tried to prove that connections can be made between seemingly disparate things.

I cannot imagine anything more dull than skills-based teaching - the passing on of knowledge is one of the most joyful parts of being a teacher.  Having said that, to think that I was merely preparing pupils for a tilt at the 'Eggheads' would be pretty disappointing too.  In much the same way that Baddiel and Skinner will always be linked to the laddish mid-90s through '3 Lions' and 'Fantasy Football', it's impossible to de-couple knowledge from skills.  It's not an either/or question- if it's those you're after, stick to your back-copies of Loaded.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Manners maketh man

...if I could give you just one gift ever for the rest of your life it would be this. Confidence. It would be the gift of confidence. Either that or a scented candle.

So says smug posh-boy Dexter Mayhew to mousy Emma Morley in David Nicholls' One Day. Emma is the talent-rich Northerner with self-esteem issues and Dexter is the Southerner with swagger. Emma is state educated and Dexter is a product of the hallowed halls of one of England's foremost centres of learning. He is part of the '7 percent club' and we are led to believe that at least part of his innate confidence and bravado come from his formative education. He has presumably developed such an advanced sense of social confidence through multiple visits to Hunt Balls, sailing at Salcombe and a few cans of warm Stella at Hunstanton tennis week.

I thought of this particular quote when reading one of the many blogs on character, grit and resilience that have sprung up like Japanese knotweed in recent months, threatening to strangle dialogue on virtually any other topic. To read many of these blogs is to suggest that such ideas are new and that Schools have been myopic in ignoring such an obvious facet of each child's education.

Do I believe that my School develops character and encourages grit and resilience? Yes, certainly, but they are not taught explicitly and neither are the words mentioned (at least in any 'official' capacity). These are basic human qualities that are desirable, but they cannot be taught, in much the same way that kindness and happiness cannot be taught - especially as one person's version of what it means to be happy may well bear little resemblance to that of another. 'Teaching explicitly' and 'developing through the educative process' are two very different things. The latter is not quite subliminal, but it is something that goes on throughout the pupils' time at School, and as such, becomes embedded over a number of years.

For 'character' to be developed, it is important to give first pupils the opportunity to display their character. We place significant emphasis on competitive team sport; on playing a musical instrument in various ensembles; on treading the boards in both School and House plays; on attendance at various clubs and societies; on taking responsibility in a School and House context; on undertaking academic challenges that last months rather than days, giving one the sense of real expertise and achievement over a significant period of time; on serving the local community in a genuine and meaningful way; on learning the need to rely on others and have them rely on you through the CCF; on a significant engagement with charitable pursuits, both at home and abroad.

To quote just one example, I have coached my current football team for just two sessions and one fixture, but it has already given me insight into aspects of character of many of the individuals. I can see whose head goes down quickly when we concede, who looks to blame others when things are not going well, who is the first person to congratulate a team-mate for doing something good, who values their own milestones over that of the team, who is scared of the physical side of things but puts their feet in where it hurts anyway and who wants to win more than anything for the duration of the game but recognises that is is nothing more than that: a game. Tiny things - the boy who asks if he can help at the end of a session, the boy who thanks you at the end of every game, the boy who shakes the hand of the opposition coach win or lose - these must always be noted and fed back (usually in a subtle manner) if the team ethos is to develop.

It is important as educators that every one of the above behaviours that is commendable is celebrated and every one of the above that is undesirable is challenged. We must adopt a rigorous commitment to setting the highest standards of behaviour and we should never deviate from these standards. All teachers need to buy in to this approach across the entire range of School-based activities. In general, pupils like to know what is expected of them. They value high standards that are applied consistently. Trying to teach 'grit' is impossible; presenting pupils with ample opportunity to display this behaviour, identifying and praising such behaviour where it is apparent and ensuring that the educative body is committed to developing such behaviour through a wide range of activities should be possible in every School.

I conversed on Twitter recently with an academic at the university of York who was bemoaning the imbalance of resourcing in the independent and state sectors. He had a point, but character, grit and resilience cost, just like good manners, nothing.