Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Educating Greater Manchester 2: Schools and other families

There’s a weird thing I hear sometimes from staff in a school. They say, ‘Oh the School should do x,’ or they’ll say in front of a student, ‘This school is rubbish.’ Students have mentioned to me how odd this sounds- as far as they're concerned the teacher IS the school, or a cell in it at least. When you hear this kind of comment, you know that the school identity is fractured.

I feel a similar way when schools talk about ‘the community’ as if they were some quarantined island, a geosphere hovering above the neighbourhoods. The school student body is overwhelmingly built from the geography of its postcode. The school is part of the community. It can try to put up a drawbridge, but it gets stormed every minute they’re open.

It’s easy to make the mistake that a school is like a supermarket where the students visit, pick up a bag of trigonometry, and leave. But it’s also an alternate dimension in their lives, that intersects messily with home and friends. And they overlap in turn, back with the school. Like the Observer Effect, it is impossible to observe a particle without affecting it. Like Osmosis, when two cells sit together, they swap matter between them. It’s not only abysses that gaze back at us when we stare. It’s other people.

I learned a long time ago that when you work with the public, expect them to drag their entire lives into your short relationships; sometimes the angry customer isn’t upset with you, but at the fact their car broke down on the way. Scratch beneath the surface of any group, and a millimetre beneath the surface lie oceans of tragedy and complexity. And how children behave in schools is enormously governed by what lies beneath.

This week showed that in technicolour. We meet Mia, a 15 year-old looking forward to both her GCSE exams and the birth of a child in the same trimester; Kodie, a school refuser teetering on the edge of dropping out, despite her obvious brains, and Katelyn, a powder keg of emotion, working out, as we all have to, who she is.

Here we see how a school is- or can be- much more than the supermarket. Mia’s family were visited at home to support where she needed to be. You could see the strain on her mum’s face, determined to make sure her daughter’s life didn't stop because of the baby. Her faith and hope for better things was touching and universal, as was Mia’s sincere and obvious joy at the prospect of being a mother. An imperfect scenario probably, but when does life grant us that luxury? We are where we are. With the school’s help, where Mia was looked a bit brighter.

Kodie struggled with other demons; loss, bereavement, anger and frustration, which she took out on herself, and her school career. Her grandfather was a living saint, raising her and being the parent she needed. It became apparent that Kodie was much more than the ‘bother’ she appeared to be; that, with support and the nudge early enough, her trajectory could be pointed at the stars instead of the launch pad. Teaching, you see a lot of girls like Kodie who appear, on the surface, to be primarily a strain. But what lies beneath? Potential is a cheap word- we all have potential. But if we all have potential, then schools need to believe in that potential, and help create it, rather than sculpt it from some imaginary clay.

What is an ecosystem?

And Katelyn, an avatar of anger, bouncing in and out of lessons like a pinball, raging and wailing in quick succession, host to a legion of emotions that she probably can't name or explain herself. When I started teaching I saw that kind of behaviour as nothing but need; it seemed selfish, a parasite on the host of the class, draining my resources from where they needed to be It took me a while to realise that their need was very much my business- as was everyone else’s. That doesn't mean give everything to one at the expense of the many. We have to perform a utilitarian calculus- what can I afford to give to each one? But that is where the greater school community comes in. Teachers cannot manage these situations all by themselves. Often, even the school cannot. But the school as a whole has a greater chance to do so than any one of us. And that’s at the heart of what communities are for.

No hospital turns away a patient for being ‘too ill.’ Similarly no school should bin a pupil for being too needy. I’ve been privileged to see a lot of schools; the best of them make every effort they can to include those who need us the most. That attitude bleeds into its attitude to all pupils: everyone matters here.

Love me tender

Of course, resources are finite, and there are a great many arguments in favour of increasing resources: mental health support, behaviour management, conflict resolution, and many more. But schools do what they can, and this school certainly did. Safeguarding teams, home visits, referrals to CAMHS, endless meetings, mentoring, curriculum adjustments, counselling. Schools are villages inside the communities within which they reside. Messy circumstances don't beget easy solutions, but here we saw some of the fruit of their endeavours, slowly slowly sprouting from the ground. Not answers, but the promise of answers; Katelyn responding to Mr Ince’s lessons, Kodie promising to give school ‘one more try’. If you read the press recently and heard about schools that sweep unwelcome students out to protect their exam results you would boil at this complete degradation of the purpose of schools, and education in general. Compare that ghastly project with what Harrop Fold attempt to do here, with what most schools try to do every day of the year.

Schools do not perform the obvious miracles of the eye surgeon or fire fighter: the blind given sight, the lost soul saved from harm. But we are blessed with the peculiar honour of being a link in the chain of their lives, and sometimes an important one. Often, transformational ones. The catch is that we often never know until years later, which means we often never know. But I know that at the end of this episode at least, Mia gave birth, and eventually went to College. Katelyn went in and out of school, now back, and Kodie got 8 GCSEs. And some of that was down to the school. And that’s not bad.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Educating Manchester 1: Loving the alien

Every successful series has a problem: carry on until everyone hates you  (see: 24), or leave them panting (see: Mad Men).  Remember Happy Days, the once-world-conquering period sitcom that outstayed its welcome, and desperate to keep feeding laxatives to the goose with the golden eggs, wrote the cast into new, odd narratives. Magical midget mojo Love God The Fonz memorably ended up water skiing over a shark, in scenes as far removed from his character's core as Freddy Krueger baking cupcakes in Justin’s House. The phrase ‘jumped the shark’ was born, and has not, as yet, jumped the shark itself.

So, has the Educating [insert geographical locale] series jumped the shark? Not yet, if this season's opener is anything to go by. Previous series had been entertaining, often moving, but there was a sense that after their spectacular Essex opening act featuring teacher demi gods like the Buddha of empathy Vic Goddard and Stephen Drew, shoeless standards Samurai, subsequent seasons were photocopies of the last one. Yorkshire (when you’ve watched them as closely as I have, you get to dispense with formalities) defined the high tide of the series’ emotional aspirations as it brought us the unforgettable combination of Musharaf, the adorable teenager who could, and his sardonic, witty mentor Mr Burton who helped him start to overcome his stammer. East End and Cardiff were very good teacher telly indeed, but there are only so many times you can watch the Broken Child Healed By Hope (BCHH) without wondering if there were any other stories to tell.

Thankfully, it feels like- so far- there’s been an attempt to mine more subtle seams. And so they should. There are a thousand pebbles and diamonds in every school, and we need only pick one up and look at it from a new angle. So, what's new?

Clear off, scumbags

Well, it's geographically accurate this time: Salford is indeed Greater Manchester, although it leads to an lumpy title. Maybe they should have sick with Manchester and just borne the apoplexy of purists on social media.

But better, this time the series has started to look at something that every school serving pluralistic communities knows too much about: racism. And more: bullying, intolerance, and the often unpleasant views that live a millimetre beneath the skin of many pupils- and sometimes, staff. This was a huge risk for the producers to take, and an even greater one for the school. There is a little to be gained from participating in this fixed-rig circus, and much to lose. Even Goddard, who came out looking like Moses, admitted that there were swings to each roundabout. Add to this gelignite soup the need to safeguard the students, and we have a rhino pogo-sticking blindfolded through a minefield in the DMZ.

But I think they pulled it off. Migration, integration, and the concomitant possibility of disharmony are the narrative equivalent of playing Operation! drunk. It’s like Eastenders, home to the only East End pub and market where no one uses racist epithets. Maybe understandably. I’ve been to dozens of schools where ethnicity determined community, and worse, defined territory, perceived antagonisms and loyalties. I’ve seen students openly drop racism bombs you hoped had died out with the Doodlebug, and more commonly, heard students unquestioningly trot out the anxieties and callous pieties they could only have learned at their own hearths. I teach Religious Studies and Philosophy so for years I’ve heard pupils express and examine these beliefs, sometimes, openly, sometimes secretly. So I’m not shocked to hear the values and truths pupils often cleave to. I’m just surprised it’s taken so long for TV to get near it.

We meet Mr Povey, this season’s Head teacher, who looks like a haunted Tom Cruise. Every Educating [x] head has this Cromwellian certainty in their eyes, fathomless ambition and enthusiasm. Which is understandable given how mad you would have to be put your heart’s work under a microscope like this. He drives in (with his bruvvers, no less) to Harrop Fold School which has struggled with debt and achievement issues, but now looks poised to flourish.

Remember, Vic: you make the weather

'I feel the need...for GCSEs'

This week we were introduced to Rani, a boy newly arrived (last term) from Syria with his famly. One can only imagine the desperation that drives a family to leave, possibly forever, from the land of their ancestors. Some kids, when asked what they did last Summer, talk about Thorpe Park and Camber Sands; Rani spoke about seeing guns, violence, explosions every day. And even in his refuge, he had walked into further indignity: bullying, the defining vice of the vicious. We saw Ms Bland, head of student support, trying to mend the brittle shoots of Rani’s embryonic relationships with his aggressors. It’s a delicate, fragile thing to do: over mentor and the boy never grows past his shadow; under support and he's crushed by the combine harvester of cruel circumstance.

We saw a carousel of talking heads, which I thought was interesting. Some pupils expressed sympathy with their migrant classmates, but it was remarkable how quickly some of their views turned to traditional bogeyman saws like housing, jobs. No kid ever worried immigrants are coming to take their jobs, just grown ups. And of course, every one of those kids had names you could trace back to migration, recent or historical. Not a Pict or Ancient Briton among them.

One girl even said, kindly, ‘We’re all in the same boat,’ which was sincere and compassionate. But others arrived on entirely different boats, like Murad in year 10, also from Syria. A Kurd from Alleppo, he arrived on a two-hour night raft to Cyrpus. ‘You didn't know if you were going to die,’ he said.

And the most difficult thing for him that he remembered when he arrived? ‘Bullies’, he said without hesitation. Can you imagine that? After running from Hell and braving a second watery Hell to do so, the thing that stood out the most from his arrival was the ghastly tribalism of people who should have been his neighbours and his hosts. I get a strange feeling of shame when I hear about guests and the newly arrived to these shores encountering random, idiotic cruelties and capriciousness, as if some unspoken law of hospitality had been breached. New additions to our communities deserve better.

And good schools like Harrop Fold do their best to make that come true. Murad was assigned to Rani as a mentor, and the sincerity of his desire to nurture and protect the wide-eyed new kid was touching. ‘if anyone touch you you tell me, he said, and suddenly Rani had the coolest, tallest bodyguard a boy could with for.

The school helped even more by putting Rani, not in at the deep end, but through a nurture group for the first few weeks to help him acclimatise. In a scene designed to slay UKIPers everywhere with rage, he even took the class through Salah, the ritual Muslim sequence of prayer. Five years ago that would have been the headline in the tabloids the day after. This time, nothing. Maybe that's progress.

Meet the Fockers

Jack and Rani: original new crime drama from ITV this autumn
Then, it was time for him to graduate to mainstream lessons. Would he be ready? Was school ready for him? Happily it was, in no small part due to the superhuman conviviality and congeniality of Jack, an equally tiny avatar of hospitality and welcome. Jack was one of those rare kids who walks towards the lonely, shy, marginalised kid instead of walking away, or worse, walking through him. His persistent, gentle hand of friendship is the stuff Disney films are made of. No wonder the pair of them toured the telly breakfast sofas all last week. And then we saw Rani’s final upgrade: the proof we needed that he was one of the gang and ready for bear: unbidden, he went up to a grimy utility van in the playground and finger painted the word FOCK on the sooty back door panel, like a miniature Stan Boardman. No matter how badly behaved it is, that is never not funny. That broke the dam, and within seconds the van was covered in the ubiquitous cartoon phallus (variant: spurting lava) and every other swear word known to school boy.

Mr Povey did his nut. Rightly. Life is full of paradoxes. Cartoon knobs and FOCK have a comedy that endures until the stars run cold, and vandalism can’t be tolerated in a civil community. I loved his turmoil spilling out in interview as he acknowledged that he probably did a few like that in his own time, but…That’s the burden of adulthood, alas. You think it’s going to be all staying up late and Christmas Cake for breakfast. Instead you end up telling kids off for writing 'Wash me'.

And from a behavioural point if view, what he then did was interesting: he shouted for ‘every student who drew on the van’ to turn themselves in. And amazingly about half a dozen did. Now call me an optimist but that's some kind of healthy community he has there if students are so good they’ll 'fess up when they don't have to. Even Rani started to beetle towards the doom of honest boys until his mates- for they were now his mates- stopped him. ‘You didn't even write on it!’ they reasoned, believing themselves as they said it. And Rani learned a lesson about double-think, and getting away with it. He probably deserved it.

Talking of hositality, Jacks mum seemed as lovely as he was, and in the Salford rain, she invited Rani back for tea at their house. Putting the kettle on might not solve all the world’s problems, but that and a plate of oven chips and pizza appeared to be a good start.

Hurt is a funny thing; it is oten given without intention through ignorance as much as will. At a support group for EAL students, the calm and kind Murad stormed out when a Polish girl, upon hearing that immigration had taken his fingerprints on arrival, said it was ‘Like a terrorist.' His anger was coming from an angry place- how often had he had to endure insults based on his colour or religion, revolving around such words? Who could blame him for living on a hair trigger? But the girl herself was remorseful, explaining that all she meant was ‘they were treating him like a terrorist.’ Neither of them meant badly, and yet when lives are suffused with mistrust, bullying and victimisation, it is easy for common situations to appear menacing.

The lesson, I think, from such situations is to acknowledge that meaning well is often not enough; that we need to work hard to consciously avoid walking into such bear traps. But even as adults this is hard. And when worlds collide, as they so frequently do due to war, budget travel, migration, and the goad of survival, it is all we can do to be patient with one another, try to think the best of each other, and to, whenever we can, love our neighbours as ourselves. Even- or especially- when those neighbours are the alien.

Other Highlights:

  • Mr Povey exclaiming 'Sue's Sexy Soup!' in the lunch queue, to no one in particular. 
  • Rani, when asked how long he would be best friends with Jack: 'Until year 11!' he said. So, there you go Jack: binned for A-levels. 
  • Big eyebrows still very much being a thing at the time of filming. Bailey lives, yet. 

 A link to my reviews of series 1: Educating Essex can be found at the bottom of this post here:

Saturday, 19 August 2017

False profits, and why representation matters at researchED

I think it’s important, once in a while, to write about what researchED stands for.  It’s important to continually define ourselves, in order not to be misrepresented or misunderstood. Recently some people have asked me where researchED stands on a number of issues, and I am glad to do so.

One of these is representation at conferences. It shouldn't need saying that conferences should represent the communities they serve; but then, many things that shouldn't need saying do need saying, and if we take them for granted, others will create new, bleaker narratives.

So, to be carved in the side of the wall:

researchED welcomes submissions from all people regardless of ethnicity, sexuality, or gender. We particularly welcome submissions from under-represented peoples or groups, considering all such submissions equally. In order to redress historical and cultural misrepresentation, I would urge anyone reading this to encourage any members of underrepresented groups who wish to, to send me a session submission. It would help us to improve representation, (and on a personal note I would welcome the expansion of my networks for future conferences). And we will always endeavour to increase our efforts to improve representation as we grow. 

A shorter versions of this is already to be found on the submission page of the researchED website here, and an expanded update will be added shortly to clarify our position.

Representation at conferences 

I also acknowledge that as a white man working in the education sector, my own immediate networks are overwhelmingly white. This isn't unusual for many; the term sunset segregation was coined to describe the process where people would often learn, work and travel in highly diverse communities, but when it was time to go home, went back to their often very mono-ethnic communities. While this might be a reasonably instinctive phenomenon, I believe it has no place in a formally organised public event, which should be as representative of the communities it serves as possible.

In the initial year or so of researchED I struggled with breaking past my own immediate networks, and if I’m honest, it probably wasn't as close to the front of my mind as it should have been. In addition there is a problem of representation in the broader educational community (see below). But talking to great educators like Alom Shaha and David McQueen in the UK, and listening to Dr Anthony Dillon and Charlotte Pezaro about this had a significant impact on me, and opened my eyes to the urgency of the matter. At first it was hard to accept that such an obvious thing had been overlooked, however accidentally. Since then it is part of my thinking process for every event, and I’m grateful for the guidance that many people have offered in this matter. I endeavour to do better with each conference as we grow.

I’m delighted to say that our efforts have borne some fruit. Our national conference has just over 140 speakers and 100 sessions. Over 11% of those sessions are presented by people from BAME communities, which at least begins to approach the 2011 census of 13/14% of the UK population, and higher than BAME representation in teaching posts (7.6%) and far higher than the sadly low 3% of BAME representation at leadership level, let alone the terrifying statistic of 0.4% of UK professor posts. The gender representation is almost exactly 50/50. researchED isn’t entitled to any medals for this- it should be automatic. But importantly, it is something we care deeply about, and every co-organiser I work with will testify that it is a routine agenda item in our every discussion. And I’m delighted that it is.

Our mission is to break things

researchED delights in debate, changing paradigms, and helping to generate a polite revolution in the classroom. I started it because I believed passionately- and still do- that education needs a revival, if not a reboot. It labours under so many false dogma and uninformed suppositions that in many ways it resembles medicine in the 18th century, when the doctor’s authority was privileged, and his hunch was the final word. Just as medicine finally succumbed to empirical science, so too should education- as an aid to our decisions, not as an authoritarian mosaic tablet. It should intersect with our every action, so that when evidence is available we use it to inform our pedagogy and policy rather than stifle it. Bogus fads like Learning Styles and Brain Gym are the least of it; wild, unchecked pseudoscience abounds, untested, unrestrained. It is still possible for a teacher to be told that group work is the best way for children to learn, without any consideration of when, and where and how it might be applicable. teacher talk is reviled, despite the enormous amount of research that suggests that careful, dialogic teacher talk is one of the most effective ways to convey information that is then retained. There are many more example of such things. None of these matters are settled, but every educator should be entitled to hear the evidence on both sides and make up their minds. on the matter.

As such, we often provoke strong reactions, particularly from people who might feel their orthodoxies are being challenged. Sometimes this leads to pointless conflict when discussion would be better; to personalised insults rather than ‘let’s talk.  researchED is a machine to create change for the better. Change always means knocking a few things over.

No tolerance for intolerance

But, as Karl Popper wrote in ‘The Open Society and its Enemies, 'As paradoxical as it may seem, defending tolerance requires to not tolerate intolerance.’ It is undesirable for any opinion to be expressed without limitation. This is not to suppress the right to hold unpopular opinions, but to acknowledge that in a pluralistic society, any right can come into conflict with other rights. One things researchED will never tolerate is racism. Specifically (in light of recent discussions) the idea that any ethnicity is in any way inferior to another, morally, genetically or in dignity is both factually false and morally repugnant to the principles of researchED. And I know of no research or evidence that indicates otherwise. As educators, our duty is to remove barriers to achievement, not reinforce them; to liberate rather than collaborate in enslavement,

There is of course significant evidence of differences in outcomes for different ethnicities: SAT scores, sentence lengths, imprisonment rates, salary outcomes etc. But these raw data point to societal inequity, circumstantial inequalities, and contextual issues, rather than to an intrinsic personal lack. More importantly, it points to areas in which we need to improve; where we need to find the invisible chains that hold certain strata back, and break those chains from here to Kingdom come. That is the duty of the educator, and it is the duty of everyone in education to enable. And it is researchED’s duty. I would not have anyone speak at the conference on the matter if I thought they thought otherwise. Better evidence in these areas can help us to right these wrongs.

Riches in Heaven

researchED has no staff or significant funding; I started it four years ago on the back of a huge amount of enthusiasm, love and support from many, many people who gave their time freely to help make it happen. Access has always been at the forefront of what we do, and I was determined to make sure that as many people as possible could come. Almost all events are on a Saturday so that employment issues are reduced as a barrier. We run a free creche at the larger events so that parenthood doesn’t prohibit attendance. Most importantly, ticket prices are rock bottom to try to reduce income as a barrier to attendance. Most of our conferences cost around £25 to attend, which includes lunch, coffee and a full program of some of the world’s top voices in education. Most teacher ‘training’ days I see charge upwards of £250-£400 to attend. I wanted to break that mould and make it easy for educators to meet with research generators in useful and symbiotic discussion. I wanted to break down some barriers between those who investigate and those who are investigated.

To some extent I think we’ve succeeded. In one room you might have a government minister taking questions of the evidence base of their latest policy, and next door there might be a teaching assistant discussing how she launched journal clubs at her school. I love that sense of levelling, of democratic representation that it embodies. It’s just one way that teacher (or educator) voice can be platformed.

Hail Hydra

One issue we currently face is, ironically, one of too-rapid success. We now run about 15 conferences a year, on three continents in 7 or 8 countries. Our national conference has around 1000 attendees this year. And we still have no staff, no capital. Allegations that we must be secretly funded in some way by shadowy conglomerates and HYDRAs make me sigh, wearily, when I wonder if I can pay my mortgage in three months time. But I love running it too much, and I believe in what researchED stands for too much, to let that be an impediment. As long as I am able I’ll support it. I’m incredibly fortunate to work with a small army of volunteers who give up their spare time to help make it happen, and without them, this wouldn't exist.

But this incredibly thread-bare model that has somehow, inexplicably worked for the last few years, means that organisationally we lack the capacity to operate in the way that better funded bodies with spare staff do. I work every day of the week, often way after midnight, just to keep up with the admin, and the decision making. I couldn't do it if the reward wasn't immense, but we are still an army of enthusiasts, and while we may look like a large corporation with committees and subcommittees, it is still largely me and a few volunteers stuffing bags on a Friday night. I hope we can be forgiven some of our frailties that we sometimes appear a little rough round the edges.

False profits of education 

There is no profit in researchED, and because I vowed to keep ticket prices low, for the last few years the only way I’ve been able to break even is by accepting sponsorship support from a huge variety of sources. All of our co-sponsors are listed on the website event pages, and they vary from event to event. We’ve been generously supported by a magazine of sources: charities, unions, publishers, research organisations, government institutions…and all with this condition: no one gets a say over who we select to present. We maintain complete editorial and curatorial independence at all of our events. Plus, having so many sponsors means that we experience no financial pressure from any one of them. researchED is driven by moral concerns, not financial ones.

The great thing about being zero profit is that it means we can keep costs low AND it means that people are far more willing to help out for free, whether by speaking, or running a room, or handing out fliers. It’s been amazing to see what is possible with love, determination, and a sense of achieving a public, common good.

A tall poppy?

We welcome informed and positive feedback to help us improve, and I'm grateful to many of the people who contacted me recently, most of whom did so in a collegiate and collaborative way. Do other events receive as much scrutiny over this? I don't know. I think if I’m honest I suspect some of the less positive scrutiny is because researchED represents a challenge to the status quo in education. We want to reform education for all children and teachers. We want every child taught in as evidence-informed a manner as possible. That means change from what we do at present; and many do not like change. We also represent an unashamedly empirical attitude in our sessions, and many do not like that either, preferring other approaches. It’s a big world and there are room for lots of kinds of conferences, and I have no objection to any of them existing. But we must allow plurality of viewpoint in the education system.

And you know who benefits most from working with evidence? Children. And of them, who benefits most? The least advantaged. Those with no second chances, no tutors, no jobs waiting for them in publishing no matter how they do. The children who are poor, marginalised, miles away from the opportunities and privileges of the elite. They are the ones who need this the most. It is our duty to over turn every dogma we have, obtain the best evidence we can, and turn that into rocket fuel for the ones that need it the most. Evidence informed education is the best vehicle for that I can think of.

And that's what researchED stands for, and continues to stand for, and always will. I hope to see you at a future conference where together we can pull down the moon an inch at a time.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Terra Australis: researchED Melbourne 2017

Terra Australis

Australia is an extraordinary place to come, especially if you’re British. The mixture of instant familiarity (driving on the left as all civilised peoples do, fried breakfasts, Cockney phonics buried inside carefree New World idiom) and the novel (dim sum next to baked beans, a menagerie of animals apparently constructed by God for a dare) creates an uncanny valley. Like you woke up in an alternate timeline where Britain was at once sunny, healthy and positive.

Nowhere I this demonstrated more clearly than in that totem of Terra Australis, the humble Tim Tam. I can summarise it in two words: Aussie Penguin (the biscuit, not the improbable saviours of zoos’ balance sheets). I already have orders from three separate people in the UK for boxes of them, like Antipodean contraband). But it’s a Penguin with an x factor I can’t quite name. A twist of vanilla perhaps, like someone sent a Penguin through a teleporter with a 99. And it is very delicious, an Umpty Candy for our age.

Aussie ed reminds me of this. I’ve been fortunate enough to eke my way across several countries with researchED in my knapsack: Sweden, Norway, USA, Netherlands, Australia, and next year possibly Ireland, South Korea, New Zealand- we’re even in talks with schools in the UAE and Spain. Every time I’m fascinated to discover how education plays out in each territory. It’s like foreign tongues: the vocabulary and grammar are frequently alien, but the underlying conventions of language remain. Every country appears to be wrestling with many of the same devils as every other country.

In some ways, this is unsurprising: the process of educating children has evolved as a societal necessity, and certain conventions emerge and converge due to circumstances universal to the human condition: the classroom, the teacher-expert, the taxonomy of curriculum, testing, certification, graduation, the lingua franca of instruction. As organisms evolve circulatory, respiratory, excretory systems in a ticker tape of styles, education throws up the same issue whether the school bells sounds over Doha or Dunfermline. Autonomy; selection; instruction and enquiry; whole child or subject…these and many others are the wrestling rings of debate.

Which is why I’ve found attending researchEDs aboard so incredibly instructive; the same debates with different accents, angles and nuance. Educational tourism is of course a dangerous game; often we find that what propels a perceived outcome (such as literacy or tertiary education enrolment) can be aligned as much with cultural contextual factors (such as teacher status, simplicity of language forms, social norms about university) as with policy levers and school systems.

But if we are careful we can learn from one another. The key caveat is to remember that correlation is not causation; that constant conjunction of two factors (such as waking up with a sore head and it being Saturday morning) may not be causal. So when we visit Singapore, or Finland we avoid drawing simple inferences about school starting age, bean bags, first name terms with teachers and wraparound tutoring and classes of 75. Some plants look beautiful in a jungle, but need imported soil and sunlight to thrive. British classrooms are not terrariums. Mango trees will not last a winter in Regent’s Park.

And other flora and fauna will. Look at rabbits, one of many unwelcome presents the British gifted Australia with. Or Highland cows (Latin: Heelan’ Coos) that chewed the cud in Mongolia for millennia before they were kidnapped to Scotland and made to produce toffee for people who couldn’t otherwise afford tooth extraction. I am fascinated by what we can and cannot learn from our neighbours, what will and will not take root abroad. There is an obvious advantage offered here: rather than launch costly (and no doubt unethical) vast social experiments in different education systems to work out which ones are most effective, we can just peer over the border and see what our neighbours are up to. In theory.

I learned a lot (my bar is low, and like a pupil on a G grade I make fastest progress) from Australia and the two researchEDs we put together in Melbourne, one at Brighton Grammar School and one in partnership with the ACE conference. Hundreds of teachers, school leaders, academics, researchers, and everyone else in between self-assembled to learn from one another and the fantastic array of speakers who had given their time for free to talk to their colleagues.

There were too many to mention of thank here, but some highlights that I managed to get to were:

Professor John Sweller, famous forhis work on Cognitive Load theory and developing Geary’s idea of Biologically Primary and Secondary Knowledge, which has proven to be increasingly influential in our understanding of why some forms of teaching may or may not be more or less effective in different contexts. His quiet, patient unpacking of his topic contrasted enormously with….

John Hattie, who is as close to a rock star in edu-conferences as you’ll find. I believe he and Dylan Wiliam are opening the Pyramid stage on Glastonbury next year. His grasp of meta-studies and the energetic, passionate enthusiasm with which he delivers it, make him one of our best communicators in education. Inevitably, one so prominent  attracts criticism: for the 0.4 hinge effect size, the nature of meta studies, and so on. But he is undeniably one of our most important voices in the Great Debate, and rightly feted as a giant in the canon.

Katie Roberts Hull from Learning First, who talked about Evidence Based Professional Learning and the implications for effective practice. In many ways this seemed to echo some of the excellent work done by the Teacher Development Trust in this field. Her idea that professional learning needs to be sustained over a long period, and connected to a learning goal, echoed deeply with me, when I see so much CPD and INSET based on a snapshot model where teachers spend a day at a Novotel taking away a bag of notes and often little else.

Tanya Vaughan from Social Ventures Australia, along with John Bush, was spreading the gospel of the Teaching and Learning Toolkit, and carefully explaining the significance of the lock, the dollar and the months-progress ideas. I hope she’s ready for years of people still asking what they mean like the UK.

Jennifer Buckingham heads up the CIS’s ‘Five for Five project’, which promotes the five main aspects of reading instruction that comprise our best evidenced practice. The resistance to this internationally is extraordinary, and even more extraordinary when you consider the enormous evidence in its favour. It’s a Sisyphean task at times, but when literacy is at stake, a vital one, and people like Jennifer are goddamn heroes for batting on their behalf against the snake oil dingos.  

Greg Ashman. Australia’s deadpan knight errant, and for my money one of the best bloggers writing about education in the game. Prolific, spiky and usually dead on. He’s one of my must-follows for anyone interested in the intersection between practice and theory.

Stephen Norton delivered a brilliant keynote on maths instruction, international comparisons between pedagogy, and the relative merits of enquiry versus explicit instruction. The results, it had to be said, were not in enquiry’s favour.

And Stephen Dinham. And Pam Snow, and Ben Evans…and too many others to mention. A huge thanks to Helen Pike and ACE for making the whole trip possible, to Brighton Grammar School for giving until it hurt, and to all the speakers who gave their time so freely. Kindness and generosity frequently makes the miraculous possible.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Good classroom management isn't violence- A behaviour panel at the Wellington Festival of Education

I took part in a fascinating panel for the Wellington Festival of Education last week. Myself, Laura McInerney, Maria Arpa and Katherine Birbalsingh were quizzed about behaviour in schools (watch it here). Within about two minutes lines were drawn and it was game on. 

Of course any attempt to reduce anything as complex as human behaviour to a coin toss of possible answers risks bleeding it dry of the complexity that makes it a conundrum rather than a pop quiz. Do what you’re told, or do what you want? Compliance or defiance? Autonomy or lobotomy? A lot of debate about behaviour barrels around these poles like flies around a lampshade. They make better headlines than strategy.

Never mind the hyperbole

The first question was ‘Is there a behaviour crisis?’ I would say it’s not obvious because the word is problematic. Crisis implies an emerging situation under so much pressure it cannot bear much more before it collapses or explodes. I think the behaviour problem is real, deep and tragic precisely because it isn’t that; in fact, it’s endured for decades and can continue to do so, gasping and grasping from the sick bed. McInerney mentioned Alasdair Campbell, who only considered it a crisis if the military had to be called in. (Perhaps we should be more worried by the Troops to Teachers program than we think?)

Katherine Birbalsingh, who can normally be counted on to barnstorm like Elijah, was as mild-mannered as someone with Xanax in their Special K. Turns out she was just stretching out like a Sumo. She broke into a jog when asked what the main behaviour problem was. “It’s not just TA’s being assaulted’ she said. ‘It’s the low-level disruption, You see them on the buses, and we’ve just come to accept the behaviour. '
'Children push,’ she said. ‘We push back.’ And I could hear her angry fan club on social media set their blog-phasers to ‘gnash’.

Maria Arpa said she thought children shouldn’t be expected to be just behave. They had to want to behave. This is certainly a laudable ambition. The obvious bogeyman to contrast this with is compliance, that pantomime villain of behaviour management. Compliance connotes so negatively, doesn’t it? Coercion, oppression, subjugation. It’s an egregious word the instant it tumbles from your lips.

The appliance of compliance

But I think we can reform it a little. For me, compliance is the first step in a ladder that takes children to extraordinary heights of habit way beyond mere slavish adherence to convention and into the realms of independently reasoned decisions. But before we can get there we need children, on those first rungs of maturity, wisdom and social awareness, to comply with moral rules, set for their benefit and the mutual benefit of all. I don’t discuss with a three-year-old whether or not to hit a peer while there’s any chance of it happening. No; at first, I forbid and prohibit, and explain why elsewhere. These combinations of prohibitions and admonitions become a set of habits, which become character. If these guidelines are good and useful, the child acquires useful and good habits of character, which are portable, and live on in them long after the teachable moments.

In fact, not to do this, and not to expect compliance, is a disservice to the child and an abdication of the precious duty we have to raise our children with every advantage possible. Sure, it sounds great in theory that we could reason our every ethical dilemma with children every time, but this misses two key issues. a) We only partially reason rationally. Much of what we consider to be our wise judgement, is an emotional response. And b) It just isn’t practical. What if they simply disagree with us? What if, after all our lovely discussion, children simply want to pursue their own self-interest? This is called the Free Rider problem, and is the reason why, even though it might seem in everyone’s interests to be good, so many people aren’t. If you were perfectly rational you might conclude that the wisest course would be for everyone else to be moral, and for you to be wily and wicked, and exploit the poor saps.

And this is why reason and patience alone will not make us moral. At some point, we simply need to instruct children to be so, and expect it, and alongside all the lovely conversations about kind hands and how do you think Tariq felt when you did that, there has to be oceans of you just can’t and because I said so.

Michaela School, yesterday 
Arpa said she wanted to get rid of behaviour management from teacher training, and half-jokingly I suggested that her wish had already been granted. Some providers do a great job, but there are still too many ITT platforms that de-emphasise behaviour management, or teach queer platitudes that are at best useless and at worst harmful: things like ‘try to make them laugh,’ or ‘There’s no such thing as bad behaviour, just a badly planned lesson,’ or one of my favourites, ‘Every behaviour is a communication,’ which might be true, but often what’s being communicated is ‘I fancy a bit of fun at someone else’s expense.’ It’s something I’m working to change, with the work we did as part of the ITT review into behaviour management training.

Do it- or I'll tell you to do it again

I agree that discussion is a more lovely way to encourage social behaviour than enforcement. But the simple, stark and stone-cold truth is that it isn’t an efficient way to run a community beyond two or three people. We all have very different ideas about right and wrong; we dispute every term imaginable, from justice to equality to good manners. If we left it to individuals to work out what each meant every time we needed to think about it, life would be a series of struggles that would consume our every instant.
Cultures thrive on shared understandings of what is meant by good conduct. Watch children howl as you apply one rule for one person but not for another. You simply can’t get students to all agree what the right thing to do is, even if you negotiate with them. For a start, some children will simply disagree about the rules of conduct, or lateness, or homework, if you let them co-create it. And every time you defer the responsibility of decision to a pupil you undermine the authority of the teacher to regulate and monitor the culture of the classroom. And that means you can’t keep them safe. It means you can’t provide what they need the most; a calm space where they know they are valued, free from bullying and interference, and free to learn and flourish.

Because what are consequences if not a way to show students that their actions matter? That they are not invisible? That someone cares about what they do? Some decry sanctions. Arpa calls them ‘Violence.’ My eyeballs almost spun in their sockets and my face made a very serviceable OMG GIF. This could not be further from the truth. She, and many who share her view, believe that systems based on rules and consequences breed violence; endorse violence; multiply violence. I think this stretches the concept of violence so far it snaps like a banjo string. If rules have no consequences attached to their infraction, then even the simplest of children realises quickly there is no rule at all.

Consequences are like the alarm bell that stops you reversing into a bollard on your car; an uncomfortable reminder that a poor choice is being made. There are many other reactions one can have to good or bad behaviour- sanctions and rewards are only two arrows in a quiver that quivers with possibility, from conversations, to meetings to education to interventions. But they are an essential- not optional- part of how we mould and help sculpt young adults into better versions of themselves.

I've seen things you wouldn't believe

Arpa is a sincere, intelligent and deeply caring person, committed to the well-being of children and adults. But these ideas are part of the reason why we have such intemperate and inconsistent behaviour in schools today. We train teachers not nearly enough in effective ways to anticipate and resolve challenge at a structural level. We offer no guaranteed training to school leaders who want guidance in creating effective school cultures. And far, far too much of the advice on offer where it does exist, is of this variety: that rules are oppressive, that children will thrive if only we granted them more and more autonomy.

Neither are complex enough to be true rather than merely pretty and pious platitudes. Children desperately need us; they need adult guidance. That requires us to be adults; to admit our responsibilities and take them seriously. Far too often we are advised in these matters by well-meaning people who have never had to deal with the reality of thirty, not a few children, in a teaching rather than a therapeutic context.

Teach the children you have, not the ones you want

There was a sensible question at the end. Could you run a society on principles of restorative justice? And of course, the answer is no. No society ever has. You simply can’t expect large communities to self-regulate through reasoned discussion. It would be lovely, but it’s a utopian fantasy. And the sad reality of utopias is that when they go wrong, it’s never the wealthy who suffer most, but the people it was intended to emancipate. Its why we have prisons and police rather than enormous voucher reward schemes for M&S.

Rules optimise justice and stability. Broken rules need to be mended and reinforced. People are imperfect. We can strive for a more perfect community, but not on a cloud of enthusiastic but impractical fantasy. In every teacher movie, broken urchins are healed by the love of a teacher who never gave up on them. That’s true, but if we don’t also teach them how to behave, then all we’re doing is hugging them into poverty.