Sunday, 5 February 2017

Known unknowns: what I discovered in Stockholm


I was the worst kind of tourist today: an ignorant one. I was in Stockholm to host researchED Haninge and chew bubblegum, and I was all out of bubblegum. But unlike our ancestors, for whom international travel was an arduous pilgrimage, we skip across borders like children. Even so, normally on any visit you'd guide-book up; I knew zip. So when I found a few hours free on Sunday to poke around the city before I flew back I found myself a stranger in a strange land, a wise fool.

It was frustrating to pad around the beautiful Old Town, ignorant of every brick and cobble, every institute and palace and promenade. I bumped into the Royal Palace like I'd fallen from the Moon, and watched soldiers march up and down, uncomprehendingly. Of course, I wasn't a tabula rasa; I could piece together some of what I was saw: I knew a little Swedish history, a bit of ABBA, how to build a Billy bookcase, all the Larsson novels, Pippi Longstockings.  So I wandered around,  uncomprehending, dislocated from my circumstances by ignorance. Knowledge was the lack; misunderstanding the effect. No amount of puzzling it out by myself would make up for the it. The facts were not buried in me, waiting to be winkled out. I could no more have discovered what was what than I could have played written a book with no letters.

I could have found out; I could have quizzed everyone I met. I could have asked the shop assistants, and waitresses, and policeman what I was looking at, and built up a picture that way. But a) I would have no idea if I had discovered the most important things to know and b) I would miss my plane and possibly starve to death. But half an hour with a guide book would have opened it up like a treasure chest. I saw a billboard advert that said, 'For the travellers who go by instinct, not by must-dos.' I understand that. There is a special pleasure in wandering, driven by chance and circumstance and luck. There are Stockholms and Parises and Tenochtitlans wild and hidden and mysterious, waiting to be found. But imagine if you did that and missed the Louvre? Imagine if you went to Venice and wandered past St Mark's Square?

I know nothing

Wild learning, self guided, unpredictable and new, has many things to recommend it; surprise, novelty, personal investment. Everyone who likes to be a traveller rather than a tourist would prefer to say they had discovered their Tuscany, their Tromso. But doing do requires that you already have a hundred pegs on which to hang the new, unprocessed data: I know a little Polish history, so I can reverse engineer some of Swedish history from their wars; I live in a constitutional monarchy/ parliamentary democracy so I know that I'm not in immediate danger of being press-ganged into the King's militia without a warrant from John Company. I've seen enough charming ancient labyrinths to know a tourist duck shoot when I see one. Knowledge begets knowledge. To those that hath, shall be given. I missed almost everything, and how different it could have been. Stockholm, I apologise for walking through you as witless as Pinocchio was inside a whale's bowels.

Visit Auschwitz to see a contrast. Oświęcim locals will remind you: it's not a Polish concentration camp; it was a German camp, hence the retention of the Germanic form. And it's not a camp; it's a museum, a memorial. Visitors are required to take the tour, and lean on headphones to unpack the horror. It's easy to understand why. Without background, Auschwitz is rubble and grass and cattle sheds and mean, meaningless brick one-storey terraces. With explanation, it burns and hums with history and Hell and horror: the spot where Maximilian Kobe was martyred and murdered; walking though the gas chambers and trembling; shaking with sorrow at the bogs where the ashes of thousands were buried. What is a room full of spectacles but an odd jumble of garbage until someone points out their savage provenance? Rags, hair, suitcases are detritus until each one has a line drawn to a lost soul. 


You could find out for yourself. You could. You could- and should- talk to people there, ponder a little, work out why an oven needed to be so inordinately large in a prison camp. Or you could be told by an expert, and then do that anyway, broadening your understanding, imbedding that understanding with personal experience, and fixing it in your comprehension with depth and gravity. 

Why not just tell them?

Discovery is a fine thing; a necessary thing. some say it is the natural power of the human mind. It is the intuitive, animal legacy of our apprehension and it is a wonderful thing. But it was designed to construct knowledge of a world at a very human level: how not to tumble over, when to shield one's eyes from the sun, how far an apple will travel if thrown just so. But Newton spoke truly when he said he saw further because he stood on the shoulders of giants; propositional claims ('Stockholm is in Sweden'; 'Carl XVI Gustaf is King') can be imparted in the time it takes to say it. In this way we not only stand on giants' shoulders, we rapidly form a pyramid of giants and humans, and see for miles. 

When we teach students, there may well be times we want them to figure out the world for themselves. But when we do, we should ask, 'Why not....just tell them? What is to be gained by the game?' If we can't answer this, then we have a duty to inform, clearly, and with as much an impression as we can make. 

The unexamined life is famously not worth living. But the informed life is worth much more. 

Monday, 30 January 2017

Sharing is caring: why centralised detentions might just save your sanity



Train spotters have their niche, I have mine. Over the last ten years I must have been in over 150 schools to look at their behaviour systems. What started off as a few consults became a habit. I get asked to work with schools that want to tighten up, reboot or buff their policies and practices. Sometimes it’s a check-up, and sometimes it’s an autopsy. It’s always a privilege.

I’ve found that some strategies are highly contextual, and some graft nicely on to a wide set of circumstances. It’s not often you can recommend a strategy blind to a school, because as Dylan Wiliam says ‘Everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere.’ But if we’re smart we can try to establish as many best-bets, highly-probables and ‘this works a lot’ as we can. Like an aspirin, most people feel better, and a few feel worse. But we still prescribe aspirin.

And one of the most successful strategies I’ve seen used by schools, and especially by schools that have very effective school behaviour systems, is centralised detentions (CD). Instead of setting and attending a detention individually, a class room teacher sets the detention which is then carried out by someone else, who may have several pupils in theor care from several sources.

Often the monitor is a senior member of the team. What they do there varies, but at the moment I want to talk about centralising detentions rather than justifying them.

The benefits:

  • Workload: The teacher does not have to attend part- or all- of the detention. This frees up a potentially huge amount of time, one of the most precious commodities in the teacher’s utility belt. I know some teachers whose every spare moment is guaranteed to be blocked out by someone in detention, all week. And just one detainee has the same effect on your schedule.  
  • Data efficiency: Because the detentions are centralised, there is better tracking of who does and does not attend. All data flows through one point, rather than being monitored by a web of people who may not share their data. 
  • Flagging up concerns: Multiple, repeat offenders, or ‘doubles/ triples’ (students set more than one detention at a time) can be identified immediately, and their issues addressed. 
  • Better skilled practitioners: easier to train staff appropriately rather than leaving it to dozens of teachers with variable skill bases.
  • Consistency of standard: School cultural norms can be more consistently conveyed at centralised detentions. Different teachers (even in the same school), have different standards of what pupils may or may not do in detention, from silent vigils, to playing on their phones. Pupils need to know what to expect.


The drawbacks:

  • Dislocation of response: It depersonalises the consequences. The pupils are often dealt with by someone who has no close connection to the relationship in the classroom. However, this can sometimes be a benefit too.
  • Exploitation: Teachers may take advantage of the opportunity. Running your own sanctions can be exhausting. If all they have to do is tap a button on SIMS, then a lot of teachers will be tempted to get trigger happy. Sad to say I’ve seen this. Rather than attempt to resolve matters in the classroom, the weaker teacher will simply hammer away at the detention bazooka. Because when someone gives you a magic hammer all your problems start to look like nails. The solution to this is for leadership to monitor the data, and support- not sanction- teachers who have patterns of high usage. After all they may simply be dealing with a more challenging intake, or carrying out the school policy to the letter. They might need support, or they might deserve a damn medal.


CD work best when

  • Multiple teachers set frequent detentions
  • In large schools or faculties
  • Teachers already have substantial workload issues (so: most places)
  • Problems occur due to inconsistency of teacher detention practices
  • Pupils frequently dodge detentions


CD works less well when

  • Schools are smaller
  • Schools already have personal detentions as a system and teachers and students feel that it works better that way
  • Detentions are very rare


So this is still no panacea; centralised detentions can be done badly, or worse can be done so badly they make things worse. But so what? That could be said of any system, from tax credits to dress down Friday. They can give staff back whole weeks of their years; they can free up substantial chunks of time on an almost dally basis. They can make the whole school detention system rock solid and air tight, which improves the whole efficacy of detentions as a system. Remember, the severity is far less important than the certainty.


I would encourage any school to try this. Try it for two terms.  Review it after the first term to see where the snags are. Improve it for the second. Then bin or beatify as you see fit. I bet some schools will never look back.

Monday, 9 January 2017

School swap Korea: Fast as lightning, but a little bit frightening



Welcome to South Korean education and School Swap: Korea Style, the focus of an unusually good documentary presented by the Sunday Times’ Sian Griffiths.

I say unusually, because schools on telly have a lineage like Argentinians with German surnames- there are bits in the past you want to forget deliberately. Belters like the aforementioned Educating Essex which managed to make school procedure watchable, but also forgettable stunt telly like Jamie’s Dream School*, which was hugely watchable but had as much to do with real teaching as…well, as this program’s theme song Kung Fu Fighting (an American song about a Chinese martial art) had to do with Korea. That was the most impressive example of ‘stuff it, that’ll do’ I’ve seen since we were reassured that Brexit did indeed mean Brexit.

But that was the only bum note in a program that kept its premise simple: what was it like for a British teenager to study in a Korean classroom? They dug up three great kids from Wales and re-potted them in two university schools in Seoul. Sarah, Tommy and Ewan were lovely. It would have been easy to Channel 5 the pitch by dropping in three crazy horses and watching the fireworks. But this eschewed the obvious legerdemain of conflict documentary, and for people involved in education, it was Boxing Day TV. My scientific device of ‘reading Twitter’ reveals that this was omnipopular with teachers, which probably means it’ll bomb out the ratings. Personally, I watched this and recorded Sherlock.

There's no place like home 

The Welsh/ Korean connection was of course because of their position on the PISA tables; in 2016 Wales came in between 35th to 40th out of 71 countries in reading, maths and science. Korea came in 7th, 7th and 11th in the same set, the giant swots. The top ten is dominated by east Asian territories like Shanghai and Singapore, Taiwan and Japan, Vietnam. You cannot move in Hong Kong right now for European Dorothys looking for the Asian Wizard of Oz. Meanwhile the Welsh welcome wagon for educational tourists still has the price tag on in case they want to return it.

Last year we saw an interesting counterpoint to this program: Chinese School: are our kids tough enough? (because you aren’t allowed ambiguity or subtlety in titles) also on BBC2. Five Chinese teachers took classes of 50 year 9s in Hampshire for four weeks and put them through a Great Leap Forward: pledges of allegiance, exercise, long hours and very, very teacher-led instruction. Some of the kids were digging tunnels to get out. Others loved it. But by the end something remarkable happened: students taught by the Chinese teachers achieved 10% higher results than their contemporaries. The head of the English school (who’d been betting on their failure) looked like he’d been asked to swallow a dolphin; the Chinese teachers were polite and serene.

Hangwan Style

This time the foreign flowers were Welsh. The students were a credit to their families- kind, open minded and bright. Ewan approached it like a scientist; Tommy missed his Playstation; Sarah was worried about missing her lie in. Classes stretched on as long as there was daylight, and beyond. A succession of after-after-after school extra revision, catch-up evening classes, or Hangwans. No Crackerjack or Blue Peter for these stalwarts.

Tellingly, the Korean pupils were asked to sit a one hour GCSE Welsh exam in Maths; many of them nailed it in 15 minutes, saying it was easy. The teacher even described it as ‘Primary School’ material, just to rub it in a bit. We watched as the brave Welsh students even stumbled in English grammar lessons compared to their Korean counterparts. Which is unsurprising as most students in the UK think grammar is the answer to the question ‘Who was Little Red Riding Hood going to visit?’

Two systems, both alike in dignity apart from one of them 

The behaviour difference was striking. Students in Korea simply didn’t misbehave; no talking over the teacher, no make-up, no texting, no chair-wars fought with flatulence, no WHY DO WE EVEN HAVE TO STUDY THIS, I’M GOING TO BE FAMOUS AND GET ON BIG BROTHER. Just oceans of self-regulation, hard, hard work, and long, long hours. I know that complex outcomes like educational achievements are the results of even more complex social inputs, but it’s not quantum physics to see that ‘sustained effort’ is the secret sauce behind at least some of the South Korean miracle.

Much has been made of the way these students are taught: lots of note taking, rote-learning and listening to the teacher at the front. Critics characterise this as boring, uncreative and mind numbing. Advocates point to what we know about learning; that we learn what we think hard about. UK lessons, marbled with group work and projects and card sorts and diamond nines and role plays about the Battle of Britain, dilute this effect.

Both systems, to mind, have deficiencies. I wouldn’t want either Welsh or Korean systems held up as ideal forms, but I’m happy to see them as case studies. The Korean achievement is extraordinary, and seems to emerge as much from their extraordinary culture of self-discipline, respect for education, institutions and a tradition of hard work. Educational tourism is often just cherry picking with Air Miles. To import Korean pedagogy without importing the culture from which it emerges, would be an exercise in futility (despite it apparently being the reach- for policy of many education ministers).

For extra marks, colour in the Buddha and tell me how you feel about it

IN OTHER NEWS: TELLIES YOU CAN SEE FROM THE MOON
South Korea, aware of the enormous pressure their system places on children, has started to look to the West to see if they can learn anything about creativity, collaboration and other shibboleths of European progressive education. I would say Caveat Emptor. Can you imagine 12 hour days where students had to rewrite Coriolanus in the form of a rap? Battle Royale would look like First Term at Mallory Towers. Tragically we see too many policy makers visit [current PISA titan x], then declare that all schools must do [PISA titan random strategy y]. This has accelerated since PISA became International Ofsted. Which is a shame, because while PISA data has a lot to offer, turning it into a league table of goodies and baddies is the worst thing to happen to education since TED talks.

But there are lessons for the careful, and some ideas can survive the journey from one soil to another. What could our Korean takeaway be? Longer hours perhaps- but not the harrowing Black Hole of joy represented by 14 hour shifts down the study mines; but perhaps schools could look more into an open all hours service, with catch-up and revision and nurture groups offered as a rolling, systematic, optional standard. I know some already do. Most school buildings stand empty for 2/3 of the year. What can we do with that?

They come here, teaching our children maths

Other things are harder to adopt. A robust respect for adults and teachers? That can’t be conjured up. Immaculate self-regulation, and laser-like work ethics? They can happen, but it takes huge effort from schools to build those cultures- which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Indeed, the success of schools like Robert Clack School, Mossbourne Community Academy or Michaela Community School show us what is possible with almost any demographic when you turn a barrage of ambition and effort onto it. These schools forge their own cultures out of nothing but sweat and determination and hope. But it will be a long time before British culture celebrates the kind of virtues that Korea does- even if we wanted it to.

For me, the trade-off suggested was too expensive. One man revealed he worked 14 hours a day, six days a week to pay for the university school for his children. Which meant he saw his kids less than the average Fathers for Justice campaigner. That’s too high a price for me. I didn’t have children so that I could never see them. Plus, teachers get to be observed by parents, as well as being graded by other teachers and students. The Hell with that.

The realm of the possible 

But this isn’t a binary option; we aren’t forced to choose between that and anarchy. Ideally we want our children to work smart AND hard so we can see them-  and see them flourish. The PISA top ten is dominated by the workaholic nations and regions of east Asia. But there are odd exceptions: The People’s Republic of Canada, or Finland (henceforth to be referred to as Funland).

And that’s even before we question the promise that PISA can define high performance in such a linear comparative way; that it’s judgements are sound; and that the conclusions it draws are sound, all of which are subjects for another feature (but I’ll summarise by saying that all of these provoke important caveats).

But what this program showed us is what is possible. South Korean culture is different to UK culture, but students’ brains are the same everywhere. No matter they do better than us: they work harder, for longer. Imagine how well students could do if they worked as hard, and lessons were taught using what we now know about spaced practice, interleaving and best practices in Direct Instruction, rather than just hard core lectures. There’s an educational national super tiger waiting to happen right there.

Roll on part 2.




Other highlights:

  • The scramble of students in the girls’ school to write correct answers on the board first. My God, the only way to reproduce that effect in the UK would be to attach a box of Tennessee Fried Chicken to a hare and set it off round a race track. ‘What just happened?’ asked a stunned Sarah, and every teacher at home went, ‘We have no idea, maybe their chairs on fire?’
  • The queue- I repeat, the Queue- to get into the public library for after school study. One more time: a queue for the library.  
  • The Buddhist shrines where parents dedicated offerings to their children’s exam success, burned old books to ward off bad luck. In the UK we call this 'revision week.'
  • The fact that 3000 people applied for 36 places on the teacher training course at Seoul National University. Why was being a teacher so popular? ‘It’s a stable job, the 8 weeks of holiday, and high status,’ said the trainer. Well, 2 out of 3 isn’t bad for us, I suppose. ‘The King and the teacher are equal in status,’ says an old proverb in Korea. See, it’s just like the UK.
  • If you’re late to lessons in University School, you have to come in earlier the next day and mop the floors. I wonder what happens if you’re late for that? And the day after? Eventually you’d have to invent a time machine and mop floors from the beginning of the 38th parallel.
  • The Seoul shops called things like ‘It’s Skin!’ and ‘I’m Café!’, that carried on the time-honoured traditions of using what probably sounded like groovy English idiom.  



*I've blogged obsessively about these programs elsewhere on this blog, if you enjoy my partisan and slightly cranky TV reviews.