Thursday, 31 May 2012

You want me to get that? Why we don't need Sunscreen and Body Image on the curriculum.

'You want ME....' etc
Readers of a certain demographic will recall Benson, the sardonic, rebellious butler played by Robert Guillaume in the daytime soap-satire ‘Soap’ and then in his own spin-off ‘Benson’. The concept of having a black butler for a wealthy WASP family might provoke discomfort in denizens of the 21st century, but we’ll glide over the vulgarities of our forebears.  His shtick was that he, servant to a family of hypocrites, adulterers and liars, was dismissive of them all.  
He expressed this perfectly with his catch-phrase; whenever a phone or a door bell would ring, everyone on the sofa would look at the eponymous underdog expectantly, and he would pause dramatically, look around, touch his chest with his finger, and say, ‘You want ME to get that?’
Cue laughter tape.
Every now and then I know how he feels. Because every now and then, some working party, or steering group, or commission, or sub-committee investigating some social ill or community horror concludes with a finding as inevitable as a Leveson witness developing early-onset Alzheimer’s:
Schools must do more to teach students about ‘x’ (where ‘x’ is anything wrong with humanity, ever.)
Sometimes this finding is described as a ‘way forward’, by which point I’m already plucking my left eye out like Odin seeking wisdom. This week was particularly fertile ground for such well-meant suggestions about what kids need to know. For a start a charity has proposed that children are given lessons on avoiding sun damage, and on Monday, MPs ‘called for body image lessons.’:
Ah, they don't make 'em like this no more. Thankfully
'All school children should take part in compulsory body image and self-esteem lessons, MPs have recommended. It comes after an inquiry by the All Party Parliamentary Group on body image heard evidence that more than half of the public has a negative body image. Girls as young as five now worry about how they look, the MPs' report said, while cosmetic surgery rates have increased by nearly 20% since 2008.

Media images of unrealistic bodies were said to be largely to blame, they said.

The MPs released the Reflections on Body Image report after a three-month inquiry, involving an online consultation and oral evidence given to the cross-party group.'

Hmm, so media images are to blame, are they? How about you go clobber them instead, eh?
Now it may seem churlish not to support these kinds of enterprise; I think our society vilifies and ridicules people for their body types in a vicious manner. It’s an odd world where one can be jeered for being too fat OR too thin, as if, like Goldilocks, there existed some Platonically ideal Body Mass Index. Of course, it doesn’t stop at corpulence or inanition; too pale, too tanned, too close together, too far apart, too hippy, too heavy, too top-heavy, too busty, too flat, too damn anything that doesn’t please someone. How many hours of misery are wasted in the contemplation of one’s deficiencies? The news that Cindy Crawford, Sophie Loren and Robert Redford worry about their looks should unpack a primitive truth, though; few people are happy.
But the constant suggestion that schools ‘must do something about this’ is laziness on both intellectual and practical levels. To begin with, these are complex problems with hydra-headed origins. Feeling shit about the man in the mirror doesn’t come about because of a lack of information; it comes about because of a complex web of inputs, influences, norms and values projected a million ways by society, and amended, ameliorated or exacerbated by a million other factors. To say that the solution to this is a few measly lessons in school is bunny-hugging of the most moronic level. It isn’t a lack of information that promotes low body image, it’s an entire set of values and cultural filters.
You want a solution? I’ll give you a solution, although some may not like it: raise children to view differences as acceptable; to understand that there are many ways to think and many ways to look; to be aware of our own imperfections before we criticise the imagined flaws in others. How do we do that? A lifetime of modelling good behaviour; of demonstrating those values themselves; of exposing them to difference in contexts that encourage them to accept rather than revile.
Bit tricky, isn’t it? Boy, that sure does sound like a lot of work. That sounds like it might take a bit of time. Sounds like you might have to constantly provide support for your children, and help them to adjust to the myriad ways society can teach us to judge others. Oh, and that’s without even considering that some forms of ridicule and body criticism might be hard-wired into us somewhat as a form of obtaining  a pecking order in our groups, which would make things even more difficult to amend.
What this doesn’t suggest is that shoe horning a few lessons called, inevitably, something like ‘We’re all beautiful;’ into an already crowded curriculum is the answer to a complex and textured problem. But then, suggesting that schools ‘fix it’ is the inevitable, obvious answer, for people who lack the vision to see beyond the reductive solution of the magic bullet. You might as well try to solve poverty by giving everyone ten grand.
There are a million things that I think that kids should know about the world; I look at the wolf-infested forests that we send our Hansels and Gretels into, and like any adult who cares, I fret. I look at my own life and I shudder at the traps I fell into, the crashes I caused and to which I fell victim. But we cannot prepare them for the complexity of the future by trying to TELL THEM EVERYTHING.

Where have all the Golden Eggs gone? says butcher.
And schools already have a primary job: it is our sacred mission to teach them the best of what humanity has learned so far, so that they can surpass us, or at the very least match our generation. The second that schools don’t do this, we condemn our descendants to a civilisation less enlightened, less wise, less informed than our own. It isn’t simply an accumulation of facts, but the bequest of culture, scientific and aesthetic to our children: the most valuable gift of all. The more we attempt to DIRECTLY teach children to vote, to not riot, to love the skin they’re in, the less time we have to teach them about how the world was made, how science works, what our common history is, how the planets roll, the beauty and efficacy of numbers; the shimmering, transformational power of language and communication. This taxonomy of subjects is core and key. It is the sign of an over indulged society indeed that we choose to crowd out these precious jewels so carelessly, in favour of other things.
The analogy of the Goose that lays the Golden Eggs is edifying here: teachers and schools do one of the most important jobs in society- and I mean that. We are the connective tissue between yesterday and today; remove our role, and in fifty years, civilisation retreats to the cave, and I am NOT fucking with you here. We are the connective tissue that tethers the human race to irrigation, law, and mobile phones. I want children to grow up eating in a healthy manner; I want kids to refrain from taking a toffee hammer to the crystal decanter of civilisation; I want them to respect themselves and others, not automatically, but because they are worthy of respect.
Is this what you want? IS IT?
But teaching these values directly in a three part lesson is the myopic, utopian response of a fool. It’s cheap, it’s almost worthless, and it does a massive disservice to these problems. Worse, it pretends that something is being done, when something isn’t. So it becomes part of the problem itself, by deterring further intervention.
And as usual, teachers are encouraged to bear this burden, this mule-pack of responsibility for solving every social ill no matter how unrelated to schooling, when we already have the most enormous burden of our own. Which, tacitly, makes us responsible for when the ills are predictably unremedied by the paltry tinctures we can provide.
Which inevitably creates the headlines (which could have been written before the project itself was even launched) ‘Schools failing pupils in ‘y’’ (where ‘y’ is equal to the value of ‘x’).
You want me to get that?

Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters: Mock outrage causes outrage

I am outraged. I'm fuming. How can people be so insensitive? They should be ashamed of themselves.

In fact, I'm so outraged, I think I might be able to wring a decent article out of it. The source of today's horror is the news, reported in the Telegraph, and no doubt coming soon to a media outlet near you, is the news that in the recent AQA Religious Studies exam, they had the temerity to ask this question:

'Why are some people prejudiced against Jews?'

The Jewish Chronicle led with this; Michael Gove jumped in with his size 12s. Lou Mensch hit Twitter like it was being rationed by Francis Maude.

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, branded the move “insensitive”.
He told The Jewish Chronicle: “To suggest that anti-Semitism can ever be explained, rather than condemned, is insensitive and, frankly, bizarre. AQA needs to explain how and why this question was included in an exam paper.” 
From this link

I had to rub my eyes a few times to make sure I was reading that right. We can't question why prejudice occurs? We can't try to understand the frankly obnoxious reasons that people might discriminate against any segment of the population? We can't try to unpick the stitches in racism, anti-Semitism, or hate-thought?

How utterly, utterly, endlessly, bottomlessly appalling. Prejudice needs to be challenged; it needs to be understood; its brittle bones broken. The fog of discrimination grows darker in the shadows. It doesn't emerge, like a miasma, from nothing. It is a primordial soup of ignorance, half-truths, fear, cruelty and imagined injustice. Suggesting that the only appropriate reaction is to condemn it, does the reverse; it condemns us. I have been to Auschwitz several times; after the abysmal anti-life that this place represents, many were inspired to say, 'Never again.'

Well nothing is dispelled by treating it as something transcendent, mystical and unintelligible. You analyse and confront; you do not retreat into dogma and simplifications. The German people are not inherently evil, nor were the people of Rwanda, Serbia, or any other ghastly gardens of genocide and intolerance. Hate is not defeated by ignoring it, or pretending it arises ex nihilo, like a genie. Understanding it takes us a step towards dispelling it. Refusing to even question its origins is a step towards ensuring that it perpetuates like gangrene in the wounds of the world.

This was a valid question, and always will be. I teach RS, and I have always- and will always- expect my students to understand why humans can hate each other. AQA understood this when they set the question; good RS teachers understand it when they teach and discuss it. Rentagobs, manufacturing outrage are the enemies of wisdom. This question was well-worded, and anyone free from a fetish for headlines and populism can understand that this question, in this context, wasn't just permissible, but vital; urgent.

Sometimes I feel that we are doomed to repeat our mistakes. Sometimes, as someone who tries to help students understand why reason sometimes dislocates in favour of race-hate, I feel so weak in the face of the cyclical nature of ignorance and ugly sentiment. The faux, proxy offended play to the sentiments of the bigoted when they classify all explorations of racism as racist.

Humanity deserves better than this. Our children deserve better than this.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

'Stop doing what we told you to do,' says Ofsted: Leaked Maths paper causes outrage.

NEWS: Recent comments by Ofsted that the maths exam is 'too easy' has been greeted with cries of 'but that's what you f*cking asked us to do' by most major stakeholders in England and Wales. Additionally, the DfE rottweiler has accused schools of teaching to the exam and gaming the A*-C figures by entering candidates too early. Tired, confused teachers have responded with various degrees of, 'But....we only get paid if the results constantly increase like an enormous soufflé predicated on infinite expansion. Help, we don't understand what you want.'

'Yes, said one maths teacher. Tell us what you want. We'll do it. Please don't hurt us. Take my last testicle. I don't need it any more.'

The Daily Guru has received an advance copy of this year's GCSE exam, criticised by many as being too obsessed with relevance and engagement with the children's context than assessing functional maths skills. See for yourself:

1 Hour 30 mins
Or as long as you fancy

Aspirational social class:

Attempt all questions

1. If Kelis's milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, and assuming the combined mass of all the boys is equivalent to 1.13 X 10^5 kg and the length of the yard is exactly three times the width of the yard in a right angled rectangle, then calculate:

a) How much would you have to charge?
b) Is it > yours?

2. If the value of Billy Jean  ≠ my lover, then does n tend to 1 where n is equivalent to just a girl?

3. In the shape to the left, is the area of the red triangle closest in value to:

a) It takes a nation of millions
b) Nuthin' but a G thang
c) 50 cent

4. Baby got back. Is Sir Mix-a-Lot:

a) Long
b) Strong
c) Down to get some friction on?

5. 'My anaconda don't want ________ unless you got buns, hun.' Is the missing value:

a) None
b) Crunk
c) Sir Michael Wilshaw

6. Lady Gaga has lost her telephone. How bad IS her romance, to the nearest three places?

a) Ra ra, ah ah ah
b) Roma, ro ro ma
c) Ga ga ooh lala

 7. What's six inches and goes in One Direction?

8. Simon Cowell, the legendary lady-killer and playboy is having a party where Sinitta, Cheryl Cole, and Amanda Holden will be strangling kittens for his amusement in order to gain the Dark Lord's favour. You have been invited. Calculate 

a) how far you would have to jump in  order to be assured of a quick death. 
b) the diameter of Sinitta's Adam's Apple.

9. Calculate the X-Factor. 

10. Will-I-am is twice as dope as Jessie J, who is a sixteenth as dope as Tom Jones. Danny = a dope. What is the smallest number of duets Tom Jones must have performed with Elvis before Danny gets a kick in the tits?

11. Extension:  Sean Paul wants to get busy. Using the following terms, does he want to get busy with Miss Jodi or Miss Rebecca, or all of them at once in an unhygienic daisy chain of wicked, libidinous foam?

Girl get busy, just shake that booty non-stop
When the beat drops
Just keep swinging it
Get jiggy
Get crunked up
Percolate anything you want to call it
Oscillate you hip and don't take pity
Me want fi see you get live upon the riddim when me ride

Show your workings. No credit will be given for unjustified answers.

End of Paper

Please indicate your preferred grade here (note: candidates who leave this blank will only receive a C):

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Teacher Memes- some of my current favourites

The Internet is FULL of stuff. Perhaps you noticed. You've probably noticed all that meme malarkey clogging up the interband. And predictably, because students have even more time on their hands than education bloggers, they tend to come up with variations on a meme. Because their worlds often revolve around school, it’s no surprise that there is so much of this stuff out there. And some of it's even funny. Here are some of my current favourite teacher memes:

OK, this last one might be by me.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Teacher Voice trumps the Techno-zealots

The Techno Viking is a digital Viking

Further to yesterday's blog, I received a comment from Joe Nutt, who used to be a principal consultant with the CfBT, adding to the points I raised. He's written an extremely readable report (click here), and an even more readable power point presentation (yes, that DOES sound like an oxymoron) which makes many of the points I did, but with greater precision, research, and fewer references to viscera and swearing (if you LIKE that sort of  thing...).

Joe's got form; English teacher for 19 years, state and private; then consultancy work with a number of bodies; Teach First, helped implement the national intranet for Scotland, etc, etc.He is, in many ways, righteous in matters IT and teaching, which makes him a rare beast.

His report says, among other things, that:

  • The implementation of IT has been driven by suppliers, techno-zealots, and the surprisingly digitally illiterate.
  • That the push for digital literacy is simply a push for conventional literacies using new delivery mechanisms, and don't rely on anything ground shaking. In essence digital literacy is simply regular, ready-salted literacy with a funny hat.
  • That IT professionals are often the driving force for the adoption and implementation of resources in the classroom
  • That the government works hand-in-hand with educational suppliers in partnerships designed, from the outset, to promote the adoption of greater IT in classrooms
  • That teachers can be marginalised from this process
  • That there is a staggering paucity of data that supports the purported gains promised by the IT evangelists; that the gains they suggest in grades are spurious and unproven

'Mr Bennett is a C-U-N...'
Anyway, read it for yourself. It's fascinating. Just because children operate in an environment that sizzles with the EMP of wireless interaction, doesn't mean that they need to be taught in a substantially different way. Every future is new; every future is built on the foundations of the past, of now. There is nothing new in this. Just because some people are frightened of the future, doesn't mean the future is frightening. Just because IT is interesting and new, doesn't mean that schools should bow to their integration at every level; where appropriate, yes, but no further.

There is a dreadful assumption in schools now that greater and greater adoption of IT systems is 'what's happening next.' This is because it has become a shibboleth, trickling down from the top via partnerships with IT suppliers, down into LEAs, through Ofsted, and into the school arena. No one ever got a promotion by standing against the rising tide of useless IT. You may as well apply for a senior post by decrying the use of data-based interventions (and see how far THAT will get you).

The Digital Natives are Restless

'Blud, when I get out, we goin' Nando's, innit?'
Can you hear the drums? That's the digital natives, beating a binary tattoo, demanding greater use of interactive and blended learning. Actually, no they're not. Like children everywhere, they like to use what they're comfortable with, and I'm perfectly happy to run with that at times. But they don't dictate what the best way to learn is. Teachers know that. If it's paper and pen, it's paper and pen. If it's text on a screen, then let it be so. One of Joe's points I echo is that even if information is gleaned from multimedia sources, it still boils down to the same thing: text, audio, video. We use them already, only we call them books, TV, recorders. The different resources vary in their usefulness and applicability.

And the final myth is that, as digital natives, kids are somehow proficient in their IT use in a profound way, and teachers have to skip and hustle to keep up. Well, let me tell you, I teach a LOT of kids, and the word 'proficient' doesn't spring to mind, at least for the vast majority. Because it's only ever a minority that are truly proficient with anything. Some kids are coding geniuses (although they don't learn it at school, I assure you, where the emphasis is on 'How to use Excel' and I am NOT f*cking with you), but most are as hapless about even the basics (like the intelligent use of a search engine) as they are about many things. Digital natives MY ARSE.  

Liking Skyrim, Diablo and Halo, Facebook and BBM, isn't the same thing as being literate.

Just because kids are immersed in technology doesn't mean they are digital natives, literate and comfortable in the sophisticated manipulation of those tools, any more than bats, because they live in belfries, are Catholic.

This blog has been brought to you with the pre-digital literacies of reading, writing, and the letters A, B, and C.


Joe's blog
The CfBT report (with link to powerpoint)
My previous blog on this topic
Mt blog on the uselessness of 'Shift Happens' (warning: written before I understood the value of brevity in blogging)
The Techno Viking. Possibly one of my favourite internet memes ever. Wait til he starts doing HIS THING.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Soylent Green is Teachers: why we need to defend education from the predators of profit

Your new school governors. What?
I am not, nor have I ever been, a communist. I believe in America. I begrudgingly concede  Milton Friedman's point that capitalism (with all its faults) is the least bad system we've devised yet. It remains riddled with anti-life equations; Marx's analysis of its weaknesses was more or less correct, although the alternative he painted remains a sketch.

Some of its central structural flaws: its dependence on desire as the driving force of delivery; the utilitarian obsession with valuing what it can measure, until all else is not only ignored, but becomes forgotten, as if it had never existed. And in its Darwinian quest for advantage, it favours those just vicious enough to maintain a status quo of cooperativeness. It seeks short term goals, it pits all against all, and without regulation, it would return us to an age of robber-barons, and perhaps it soon will.

That's the good news. But to be fair on Adam Smith, it delivers on many levels: as a conduit between perceived need and supply, it approaches cartilage in its connective powers. But there is one circular charge against it which can never be squared: it values profit above all things. Marx called profit theft; more generous commentators call it the fuel of ambition and innovation, the psychological egoist pay-off for competing and striving.

Profit, above all things. Kant claimed that the only true moral motive was the good will- the desire to do good for its own sake. Anything else fetishised the intention, and made good an instrument to an extrinsic goal. For example, if I am an honest shopkeeper because I want my business to prosper, then what I really seek is prosperity, and the minute I can pursue this without honesty, I do so. That is what is so damning about profit: whatever one does in its name, if profit is your sole goal, then all other goals become subservient to it. I believe I'm not conceiving anything controversial when I say that money is an intoxicant that ruins the keenest of hearts.

The future of law enforcement
And profit sits very uneasily with education; not because I cannot conceive of anything educational having a margin, but because of the temptation to see the playground as a marketplace. There are many aspects of state schooling that, like the health of the nation, cannot be amended to the spreadsheet, because they are intrinsically non-profitable- financially. Listening to a kid who's depressed; talking to a parent about ways to get their kid back into school; teaching with passion because you love your subject and you want your kids to do so as well. These, and a million more things, are what education is about. They aren't done because of some loathsome hedonic calculus, or because we quantify experiences that are essentially qualitative. They are done because they are intrinsically valuable, not because they reduce to a bottom line, or a monetary value.

So I watch with horror the vultures circling education as I write, looking to see which part of the school pack looks like the most lucrative place to maul and bleed first. Which part is the most lucrative?

'Would you like fries with your dreams?'
Of course, schools have outsourced for decades; we are far from soviet. Caterers, cleaners, IT supplies, and so on have all been seen as something that could be run far more efficiently by an economy of scale across boroughs. Now this may be practical on many many levels, but I only have to mention Turkey Twizzlers and you start to get my point: when something is done for profit, profit becomes the sole aim, and other aims- feeding children healthy meals- is not. There was a corner shop next to my old school that sold stink bombs and firecrackers. I am NOT kidding you. When I asked him to stop, he just said, 'They'll buy them somewhere else, won't they?' Ah, Heroes of Sparta, we salute you.

Two things reported in this week's Private Eye reminded me of these factors today. One was an article about how private investor forms are 'circling the university sector hungrily.' As you can imagine, their intentions are strictly honourable, looking to move into distance learning- that highly regarded and noble part of the tertiary education sector, as the University of Wales knows.

Coming Soon- The Soylent Green Academy

Then there was this article about  Michael Gove's  long, unedifying history with the now pariah News International Gang, helping them to- almost- set up a News International School in Newnham. Anyone fancy the chances of that now? No. Incidentally, Boris was on the tours to find potential sites too. Eeh, it makes you feel all warm, doesn't it?

'Murdoch told investors he sees schools as a “revolutionary and profitable” area for business expansion. In the US, indeed, he bought Wireless Generation, an education technology company that could digitise classrooms. Given its pisspoor record in New York schools, however, Britain – and Gove – appear to have had a very lucky escape.
According to the New York City comptroller (auditor) John Liu, the “costly tech program” was supposed “to help principals and teachers track progress and thereby improve student learning”. But “$83m later, there is little discernible improvement in learning and many principals and teachers have given up on the system.”'

Schools aren't a 'profitable area' into which businesses can expand. They aren't a line in a P&L sheet. They are not hot dogs.What makes this worse is the emergent (and to my eyes, grossly oversold) IT revolution that has been promising to revolutionise education for decades. It hasn't. It probably won't. It's an enormous con designed to sell white boards, tablets, software, maintenance contracts, etc. These things can all be great, of course, I use them myself. But to suggest that we couldn't learn properly before them is obviously a lie, and a stupid one at that; and the idea that they will make us all learn...what, quicker, better? is also a lie, because it is without foundation. Most tech I have seen in schools is redundant, foisted on an unwitting staff by budget holders who want to be seen to be cutting edge, but are really just flailing about looking for solutions. And there will always be people willing to sell you solutions.

Soylent Green is teachers.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

We're all doomed! Don't worry about a talent drain, Christine- there's no where to go.

'Is that Wilshaw?' 'He's SO hot right now!'
Second blog of the weekend because I FEEL LIKE I'M TAKING CRAZY PILLS. Why? Because every time I pick up a paper I read things about teaching and teachers that bears no resemblance to the reality of education. Usually it's from someone who only steps foot in a school to give a speech, who's never actually taught a child, and doesn't know what it's actually like to be a teacher.

And why should they? No one actually asks us. It's why some of us end up fomenting our own Arab Springs via blogs and Tweeting with one hand as the other marks ('Only one t in innit, Caspar.') which is about as desperate as it gets. It's King Canut turning back the tide as he pisses into the wind, wishes on a star AND tries to put the cat out as he lights a fire. It's a Kessel run in less than 11 parsecs; it's the hill of Sisyphus; it's the definition of optimism.

Today's catalyst was this article in the Guardian 'Schools face talent drain as level of morale of teachers dives.' Says who? Says Christine Gilbert, ex Head of Ofsted, and previous occupant of La Dame Wilshaw's torture chamber. Which is like Torquemada saying, 'Eeeh,  Auto-da-fés were better in my day,' but we'll pass on that. 

The claim is that teachers have never had it so perishing dismal; 

Her comments come as a survey from the biggest teaching union, the NASUWT, reveals that nearly half of its 230,000 members have considered quitting in the last year, amid a collective crisis of confidence in the profession.
More than a third said that they did not believe they were respected as professionals and half said their job satisfaction had declined in the last year.

Hmm. Thinking abut leaving, and leaving are two separate concepts. Who hasn't thought about leaving at some point?  I love my job and my school, and it crosses my mind because I don't imagine that a spell keeps me to any one place like La Belle Dame Sans Merci. Anyone fancy a follow up survey to see how many of those teachers left after a year? Anyone?

Also, in a market where people are hanging on to their jobs like Britain clutches dancing dogs to its bosom, I have never seen, in ten years, a worse time for teachers to be thinking about jumping ship and starting up another career. In a storm, people furl the jib, lower the mainsail and batten down the hatches. They do not go for joyrides on inflatable bananas.People might want to leave the profession, but that's far from a talent drain. I've worked in and outside the school sector, and believe me, schools seem like Anderson shelters by comparison to the world beyond the school gates.

'Obey the inspector...happy...'
So why the claim that the profession is being undermined? Ironically, the claim is entirely correct, but for entirely the wrong reasons. We have never been so tragically underestimated and represented; we have never been seen as less important than now. Rhetoric that 'teachers are the backbone of society' (which is rolled out in EVERY public speech, ever, about teachers, by everyone. We're like nurses, or minor saints. Which makes it odd that we are so relentlessly bummed by successive leaderships, but oh well) is Newspeak.

  • No one asks us what we think about teaching and learning. Ever.
  • No one asks us what we think of targets and target setting
  • No one challenges the orthodoxy that, the targets we are evaluated on, are composed of fluff and fairy tales.

Let me be clear; the reason why teachers feel a bit crappy is because

1. Behaviour. Poor behaviour, weak leadership, poor training to handle it; a culture where children are seen as equal stakeholders in the classroom; where parents have more recourse to provide input than professionals. And the death of the exclusion system.

2. An obsession with Data. Nothing wrong with having targets, but they have to be meaningful. As I've said elsewhere, FFT data is a completely inappropriate way of predicting where a child 'should be'. It;s based on unreliable data from feeder schools, and the school and the teachers spend the rest of their education trying to dance around the scatter graphs to show mindless, moronic progress. And the targets get harder every year, as if we operated in some soulless factory production line predicated in infinite expansion. Give me strength. Targets, I'm fine with. Meaningful targets though.

2.5. The marketisation of education (see: Information economy, JESUS CHRIST). This leads to the view that there is a model of education that every school should conform to, and every teacher should aspire to. one size does NOT fit all. Instead of trying to cram human experience into geometric models, we need a system where teachers scrutinise teachers, where key education factors are focussed on- punctuality, attendance, behaviour, lesson quality, mutual respect, effort- and the flim-flam of data management plays a distant second fiddle; as a commentary not a critical factor.

It isn't because of the odd shirty comment from Wilshaw that many teachers are feeling lousy. That's a manufactured outrage, and  completely inconsequential to the day-to-day job  of teachers. So SMW made Rambo noises about stress. Oh NO! Boo hoo, how will I sleep tonight?... seriously..

Twiggy Twigg is banging on about Wilshaw being Mr Nasty, and international comparisons with Japan; Gove is worried there are too many posh people in education (which is like Lady Macbeth worrying that the House of Lords is unrepresentative); Gilbert says, depressingly, that the profession has never been so professional, presumably because we have all that lovely data now. In times like this we need to focus more and more on what's important in education.

But more and more it seems like no one's talking about it.

And as a teacher, I feel like I'm taking crazy pills.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Burn the Witch: why everyone hates Michael Wilshaw

'Oh Father Sun! We offer you SMW for a bountiful value-added!'
You know how some people precede their observations on another with the comment, 'I don't agree with everything they say, but...'? This makes me tear what hair Fate has left me from my brow, because the chance of you actually agreeing with everything someone says must be something approaching zero probability, unless you follow J-Bieb on Twitter or find yourself chained to a radiator in Somalia. I take it as read that I won't agree with everyone in this vibrant tapestry of dissent and accord we call opinion. Perhaps you agree? Oh.

So it skewers my soul to see people falling over themselves to align themselves to either pole of an argument, as if discussion were digital rather than analogue. We see this in aesthetics ('Jackson was a god/ devil) such as the letter column of NME used to host, and obviously in politics. Fundamentalism in any corner of the libertarian/ authoritarian/ free market/ planned economy box is often the easiest to dispute, because universal claims are the easiest to admit exceptions. The idea that the invisible hand of the market is the philosopher's stone of equitable distribution is soon torpedoed by pointing to a favella. The Marxist's touching belief in human nature is ruined by the absence of evidence that men will spontaneously collude given a renewal in the gears of production, and so on.

So far, so obvious. It's why I couldn't join a political party and lend them my allegiance, when they represent so many incoherent and coherent aims- as do I, as do we all. I used to vote Labour all my life, until the wars, and the marketisation of education, and I vowed, like Batman, to choose more carefully.

No teacher, yesterday, apparently
It's why I wonder at the outrage Michael Wilshaw seems to generate, like dandruff, where ever he lays his mortar board. This week, the digitally literate denizens of the edusphere spasmed like a spastic colon over comments he made at the Brighton College of Education Conference. The main contention was that he claimed teachers 'weren't stressed.' This was reported EVERYWHERE. (caution: haven't checked this literally)

Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw: Teachers not stressed

Teachers don't know what stress is, says Ofsted chief

Teachers don't know what stress is, says Ofsted head

See? I wasn't making it up. That was the headline, the claim, and the cause of Twitter storm- and this on a day when Rebeka Brooks was giving evidence at Leveson. My timeline was spinning like Amanda Holden's pacemaker in a boys' sixth form college. Or a Geiger counter during the Hulk's colonoscopy

Two girls, one cup

Blogs have rolled out like Panzer tanks; outrage stalked the school corridors like the tenth plague of Moses. Lines have been drawn, tents erected, and the message is clear. KILL THE BEAST. But this is a chronic misinterpretation of the situation, and the current panjandrum of Ofsted 

I've read the speech, and you can too if you have a spare click and ten minutes. Now get past the first bit, the Alan Partridge jokes and the awful attempts at warmth. He doesn't do warmth, it doesn't fall easily from his repertoire. He is no warm up act. He moves past the suicidal stand-up, and briefly says 'He doesn't like strikes.' Fair enough. I've striked. I don't like them, as such.

'Welcome to Jamrock, camp whe' da' thugs them camp at
Two pounds a weed inna van back.'

Then he goes on to say that he thinks that education in this country needs to be improved. This is often a stumbling block for any spokesman on education. Whenever anyone says that anything could work, y'know, a bit better in schools, they are often seized as enemies of the state, deniers of the sacred truths. As anyone who know my writing will testify, I am hugely critical of the ways things are run in the education sector, and often of the way specific schools are run. But I hope I do so because I love education, love teaching, and want teachers to be well, and kids to flourish thereby. I do a lot of pro-bono advice for the TES because I remember how much I needed help when I was new. But even I've had a few bricks thrown at me saying, basically, 'YOO TORY SCUM WHY DONT YOO FACKIN DIE LIKE THATCHER' or whatever whenever I point out that all is not well in the secret garden. It perplexes me*. I've also been criticised for being too supportive of teachers, over the child, the parent, the DfE. It's BECAUSE I love education that I want to see it well. Pointing out the wounds doesn't make me the man with the knife.

Wilshaw claims 'All teachers are f*ck*ng b*st*rds' shock

Then, the meat. 

'We need to learn from this and challenge those who have power invested in them to make the difference, but too often make excuses for poor performance – it’s just too hard, the children are too difficult, the families are too unsupportive, this job is far too stressful.

Let me tell you about stress.

 ‘Stress’ is what my father felt, who struggled to find a job in the 50s and 60s and who often had to work long hours in three different jobs and at weekends to support a growing family.'

(carries on in a similar 'Never had it so good' vein for some minutes. Like I say, his style will never see him through any stadium torch rallies)

This is the bone of contention, the sticking point, the pivot from which all the friction emerged. Now, I personally think it was a clumsy piece of rhetoric, inelegant and tiresome. But what he didn't say was the widely reported falsehood of 'Teachers don't know what stress is.' What he DID say- to a conference of Head Teachers, I need to add, so this is his audience- was that Heads shouldn't use the stress of the job to excuse accepting low achievement in children.

  • So he's pointing the finger at Head Teachers, not all teachers.

  • He's talking about HT that use 'this job is tough' as an excuse not to care if children succeed, not all HTs


That's as clear as a bell to me, and it was the first, last and everything I connoted or denoted from those words. And I'm pretty damn sure that's what he meant. Or to put it another way, to take from this meagre soil the weed of 'Teachers don't know what stress is,' is just wrong. The fact that he then followed it with 'stress is...' (like some kind of deviant 70s bedroom poster for cynics rather than romantics) was just a way of saying that the stress of trying to turn a tough school around is comparable, and often exceeded by other disastrous stressful consequences when things go wrong in schools.

And as it happens, he also said THIS six months ago:

'Teachers suffer from burnout,' says new Ofsted chief.

THIS version of the Great Satan apparently believes that teachers are under too much pressure, need less paperwork, and should get sabbaticals to unwind and chillax. Hmm, that's odd. I thought he was saying teachers didn't know what stress was? Ah. 

We need to be more than Twitter gadflies, flitting from one outrage to the next, settling on, not just one speech, but one line, one phrase at a time. Surely perspective demands that we adopt a holistic approach to understanding knowledge. Isn't that what we try to teach our kids- knowledge in context? Or is that only for children, never the adults who teach or inform them? 

This was the smallest part of the speech; but it provided, to those who sought it, fuel for a bonfire, because many have decided that Dame Wilshaw, if he be not entirely for us, must be against us. And it's BURN THE WITCH all over again. He seems to be a bit of a hard-ass; he seems to have somewhat of a penchant for tough talk, which doesn't spin well with those who prefer the gentle touch. But I asks ya- how do we propose someone who's remit is reform should speak and act? Do we want a man composed entirely of focus groups, consensus and compromise, like so many politicians today, who more closely resemble holograms of impalpable ingratiation? 

Are we so addicted to the modern news dialectic, where politicians are so afraid to put a word out of place that they employ professional ideology hairdressers to comb every nuance into consistency; where they mow the tall poppies down so that the lawn of political language is even and flat? God, give me a leader who speaks his mind, however spiky and irregular it may be. At least we understand each other. Wilshaw is no career politician, like so many who make me despair that politics will ever be anything other than a ping-pong between the poles in the centre middle. He was a teacher, and a Head Master, and an extremely successful one at that. Mossborne is a small miracle- both sides of the House agreed on that, and sought to show its success as capital for their success- and it doesn't matter how you spin that. Hackney is the poorest borough in England. There aren't enough pockets of affluence in it to stitch together a demographic destined by birth for success, as some opponents claim.

Twitter: 'BURN (-fill in blank-)!'

So he's no consultative hard-on with a lifetime spent learning how to tell people what they want to hear, or a graduate from PPE who went into twenty years of telling people how to do their jobs. He's got school form. And after a decade of seeing schools and teachers creak under the burden of misbehaviour, I'm glad to see an Ofsted Head who thinks it's more important than SEAL. Misbehaviour is the elephant in the classroom. Some of his reforms seem sound. Some, I suspect as flawed. C'est la vie. He's not there to campaign for teacher rights to the exclusion of others. He's there to improve education. Ruffling feathers are practically part of the job description. Teacher feathers. Parent feather. Student feathers. He may be right, or he may be wrong, but let them ruffle.

Most teachers I know are great; some are rubbish; some are fine. Have you seen a profession where this wasn't true? I haven't. Same for schools. Some SLT are Gods; some are monsters. Some teachers should be shaking fries at BK; some should be knighted, made into constellations, and have cocktails names after them. There's a good deal to reform in education. I want to see an end to the obsession with data, FFT, targets and Mickey-Mouse performance measures that currently dog and devil us; that, and ignoring behaviour, is crushing education, believe me. I want to see training reform; I want to see SLT being freed from the fear of micromanagement; I want teachers empowered to teach; I want the balance redressed between the teacher's rights and those of the child. 

I want the moon, just like everyone else does.

Like Rebekah Brooks' masterful LOL-dodge at Leveson, this misinterpretation was seized upon by many as the summary, the distillation of the entire speech. Which is a dreadful shame, because he said a lot in it; some of which I agreed with; some of which I didn't. 

Because, you know, I don't agree with everything he says.

*Also, I will vote Conservative when Hell freezes over.




Monday, 7 May 2012

Avengers Assembly! Lesson ideas from earth's mightiest heroes

The new cast of Waterloo Road.
Now if you've seen the latest Avengers film I suspect you didn't see the immediate link between it and your teaching. NOT TO WORRY TRUE BELIEVER I HAVE YOUR BACK ON THIS ONE. That's EXACTLY what I was doing, in between hopping in my chair in childish pleasure and shadow-boxing Chitauri raiders escaping from the poorly rendered post-production 3-D. Comics haven't grown UP; they've grown OUT, from their pulpy three-coloured dying planet, rocketing to megaplexes and multiscreen car parks. It's a format that is finally ready for rendering these Olympian cartoon ideals. Previous efforts, notable exceptions aside, suffered from their attempts to rationalise and realise concepts and characters that were, essentially outlandish and impossible. Adam West pulled off Batman because he went for pop-lite rather than Dark Knight. Reeves and Donner's Superman was an elegant and affectionate love letter to noble intentions and the dignity of goodness.

But now, it seems, with actors who can tightrope the balancing act between childishness and seriousness (Downey Junior, Jackson) and $200 million worth of ILM tokens, you too can bring Kirby and Lee's finest into the light and not have anyone laugh at the wrinkles in the armpits of the suit. Joss Whedon should also get a nod for writing something that needed simple lines- like a spaghetti junction- and could so easily have been a Fantasti-car crash.

So: many of your kids will have seen it; few, I imagine, will be unimpressed by it. My unscientific survey of every child ever has yet to reveal any disappointed customers. What better than to drag it into the classroom? I always try to use contemporary examples, not in some craven attempt to inject relevance to my subjects, but because if you can engage them AND teach what you want to teach, then no harm has been done to education, and everybody wins, everyone learns something, group hug (warning: never do this).

Hulk SMASH puny Socrates

Teaching philosophy is a PIECE OF P*SS. You can shoehorn just about anything into it and it just wolfs it down like Galactus, ready for more. This might be because philosophy is essentially about everything, which is a pretty big category.


Does the state have the right to nuke Manhattan in the interests of the majority? JS Mill's utilitarianism is the best starting point here, contrasting perhaps with Kantian deontology, or the idea that some acts are intrinsically never morally acceptable. Look at Iron Man's sacrifice, for instance. Kant would say that suicide is never a duty, because it is a contradiction of the will; an act of self- love to preserve oneself and to satisfy one's selfish wishes. But Bentham would claim that the death of one man to save millions is a no-brainer. Does great responsibility come with great power? Ask the Hulk.

Or, does  the state have the right to create bodies that seemingly defy democratic processes? (I mean the shadowy figures on screen that act as Fury's masters. Who they? I wonder. The Pentaverate?) Can the state ever dictate what is in the best interests of the people whom it administers? Is a benevolent dictatorship ever justified? Is it possible? Why do they always sit in very dark rooms? See THIS for details of further sinister shadowy uberrulers.

Religious Studies: 

You read that right. 2008.
The presence of, let's face it, a whole alternative pantheon of Gods makes it pretty hard to avoid discussing this in R.S. I always wondered, in comics universes where Thoth, Hercules and Thor all rubbed shoulders with Beyonders, Galactuses and whatnot, what role religion could meaningfully play. They seemed to have got themselves into a bit of a theological pickle; most comics companies would be loathe to disparage the monotheistic customer base that constitutes their big markets, but rare are the writers who tackle it head on- Alan Moore in the Swamp Thing, for instance. Show your students the clip where Iron Man tries to deter Captain America from following Thor: 'He's a GOD,' Tony says, deadpan. 'There's only ONE God,' says Cap, pulling on his parachute, 'And he sure doesn't dress like that.' You just KNOW Cap is a protestant. It's in his super-serum.

For more on the religious affiliations of the superheroes, click here). Fascinating, and endlessly geeky.


I came across this joyous wonder of the internet- an exploration of the kind of forces necessary to guarantee that Hulk could propel himself in his trademark way of 'jumping everywhere', and a messier and probably more realistic interpretation of the 'leaping tall buildings' meme. The big question is, would the pavement crack? Answer: probably. This site is probably too much for any but advanced students, but the basic principles and questions can be addressed in simple Newtonian terms.


You don't see Thor do this very often.
Gender Roles, and their portrayal in popular, populist art. It probably hasn't escaped your notice (and I'm not sticking my neck out too much here) that most comic books have been traditionally created for, and aimed at, a predominantly male market. And you don't have to be Andrea Dworkin to imagine that the traits men are celebrated for (wealth, strength, status) are reproduced in gargantuan levels in the fantasy wish-fulfillment world of the superhero. The Greek heroes and Gods were themselves idealised versions of us, with the volume turned up. Superheroes now do the same. They're not better than us; they are us. Their frailties are ours. Here's a good example of what I mean: what if the male superheroes were depicted with the same exaggerations as the female ones? Painfully obvious differences; in the case of the Hulk, very painful indeed to look at.


Who would win in a fight between the actors who play the Avengers? (OK: it's not very good PE, but unless you want your kids doing 'Hulk Jumps' and 'Captain America Squats' I'm running on fumes here. I'm BUSKING. Besides, it allows me to cram this beautiful quote from Downey Junior into my blog. 

"Well, not all of us are in the same weight class so it is hard to say between Hemsworth and Evans. I think they’re pretty evenly matched. I think it would go to the ground. Then I think it’s me, Ruffalo, and Renner in a quote-unquote three-way in which I lay waste to them with sleeper holds but then we cuddle. And then it is Hiddleston versus Johansson if I am not mistaken. That probably just winds up in dinner at a five-star restaurant somewhere."

- Robert Downey Jr. on who would win a battle among the Avengers


(I say 'science' with the same level of accuracy that most comics do, ie none. I mean, Bruce Banner- he's what, a biochemist? An expert in radiation? And Tony Stark, he's a cybernetics/ munitions/ engineering genius? But comics treats them all as 'scientists'. They all know everything about every field. Man, I can barely keep up to date with MY subject, and that was mostly finished after Aristotle.)

There's nothing a comics geek loves better (after inappropriate levels of spandex and costume tape) than a bit of science banter. And what better way to bridge the gap between fact and fiction than to discover the exact point at which the possible becomes impossible. If, like me, you were wondering just HOW Superman could actually fly- and more importantly, HOW COULD HE CARRY REALLY HEAVY THINGS WHILE HE WASN'T ATTACHED TO ANYTHING? then this is a source of endless delight. Could Superman have children with Lois? Or would his Kryptonian physiology make congress the last thing she ever conceived of before her brains blew out. THIS WAS IMPORTANT.

This web page gives a few talking points that encompass chemistry, physics and biology:

  • How does Cap's shield  absorb so much energy without breaking his arm?
  • How do the Chitauri power their troops wirelessly?
  • Can we control the weather?
  • Iron Man's exoskeleton- how close are we? (SPOILER: Not fucking very)
  • DO other dimensions exist? Are there Infinite Earths?

This is how I develop questions in English.

The language of the different characters is an important clue to character, their backgrounds and context. In this interview, Joss Whedon talks about the writing process, and what the language of his characters says about them. Of course, this is far from Shakespeare (especially Thor, and thank Odin they parked as many 'Thees and Thous' as possible), so it might be a very low level task unless it could be pitched to the very able, who could dissect and examine the mistakes and inconsistencies as much as the successes. Getting kids to criticise popular material is, I think, valuable, as long as it doesn't normalise the mundane.


I dunno. Count how many times Nick Fury manages not to bump into something even though he has no depth perception?


Just watch the movie, and afterwards everyone gets an 'A'.  And a biscuit.


'Lesson 1..and...ACTION!'
Draw a map of the world. Then put a pin in the map for every major metahuman situation that focuses on North America. Then rub your chin.

Or ask yourself why they had to go to Germany for the bit in the museum. Did they think they were filming Bourne? Was it so Cap could say something about Hitler? Do people go 'Godwin's Law!' a lot to Cap? I bet they do.

SPOILER ALERT!! (mental note: put this at the top of the page)

Good luck next week. I have to confess I heard the phrase 'Avengers Assembly!' on Twitter and I can't remember where; but I salute it while I steal it. It would be worth having the assembly just to use the phrase. Perhaps the theme could be: 'Guy with a bow and arrow- in the Avengers? Discuss.'