Bridging the gap

For several years I have sensed a coming together of several previously disparate strands. Both in education and in politics more widely, new thinking is galvanising around what the future of liberal-progressive thought might look like. Despite this emerging thinking, there also seems to be a disconnect between the possible future and the status quo. Here are a few thoughts, again very much a ‘work in progress’…

In education, there has been a renewed focus on the evidence from cognitive science to inform teaching and learning. There has also been a return of knowledge and the curriculum to the forefront of educational discussions. Beyond education, the drastic changes in the political landscape over the past five or so years on both sides of the Atlantic have seen a revitalised discussion around the future of liberal and progressive thought.

To some degree, this post builds on my earlier posts in 2015 (Progress) and 2016 (Good life, good politics). Those strands which I saw converging have continued to do so. There seems to be a greater consensus around what I would label liberal/progressive thinking which applies not only to education but to society and politics more widely. When this liberal/progressive offer is viewed, it can sometimes seem like ‘motherhood and apple pie’ – common sense, reasonable, moderate, centre-ground – how could anybody disagree? And yet, there is a disconnect between this possible future and the current direction of travel. A disconnect between what evidence and rational thinking tells us is possible and the choices we are actually making into a reality.

Disparate strands

When I was researching my Masters between 2011 and 2013, I focused on the ideas of social realism and powerful knowledge (See my previous post for more on this). Around this time, the related idea of a capabilities approach to (geography) education was also being developed (See the work of David Lambert and Richard Bustin for more on this). These ideas were very much about adopting what was, to me, a (small ‘L’) liberal attitude to education, where the principal aim of schooling is around human empowerment. As a liberal I believe that education is the most powerful tool which a society has for improvement. Ideas around powerful knowledge and capabilities seemed to fulfil this.

Alongside this work on education, I also came across a growing number of pieces around what progressive politics and policy-making looked like (see those earlier blog posts mentioned above). With the advent of Corbynism and the leftward lurch of the Labour Party, I think that debate around what progressive politics looks like is especially relevant now after Labour’s 2019 General Election defeat. I was also very interested to see some of the analysis of why some US Democrats felt they lost so much ground, and of course the Presidential election in 2016. A growing emphasis on ‘identity politics’ was held up as a potential problem. I appreciate this is a vague term, but I have some sympathy with the argument. Whilst identity issues are clearly incredibly important, their importance varies to different sections of the electorate. This is not simply a communication and campaigning issue, it also poses a wider political issue. What are the big ideas? And to link back to communication: what is the big narrative? Unfortunately the political right, be it US Republicans or the Tories here in the UK, seem to be very effective at finding winning big narratives: ‘Make America Great Again’ or ‘Get Brexit Done’.

As I also mentioned in one of those earlier posts, some commentators including philosopher John Gray, suggest that liberals have lost touch with where the broad majority of their countries public are. The results of the 2019 General Election may be considered evidence of this.

A question of purpose

To start reflecting on how liberals/progressives may have lost ground, or lost touch, it makes sense to go back to the starting point. As Simon Sinek would say: start with why? Go back and re-evaluate purpose.

To look at the area I am most familiar with, consider education. A common and not unfair criticism of education (at least in the UK, but elsewhere too) is that it has become too focused on public examination results. This partly can be attributed to the growing obsession over the last three decades or so, with focusing on measuring outcomes. This obsession is not limited to education. It stems from Thatcherite reforms and the introduction of market forces into public services which has led to ‘performativity’ across education, health and other sectors. We have become obsessed with measuring outcomes and this has in turn shaped us to focus only on what is measurable and quantifiable. We can measure exam outcomes and turn them into statistics and league tables. Unfortunately this may be one of the major reasons why our education system doesn’t look more at wellbeing and other possible aims of schooling which cannot be easily quantified.

This goes beyond our obsession with measuring though. As a society, have we lost a sense or adopted a misguided sense of the purpose of schools, the NHS or the state as a whole? When have we gone back to first principles to ensure that the current operation of the state and its many institutions is actually fulfilling the right principles and aims? There has been some interesting work in recent years around our global obsession with GDP and economic growth (for example David Pilling’s Growth Delusion). Somewhat linked back to my previous point around measurement, government’s slavishly design and adjust policy to deliver economic growth, reporting GDP figures as a sign of success. Is this still the right guiding star?

This is about more than the obsession with quantification though. It is clearly ideological and it also reflects vested interests in society. I don’t think I am straying too far from moderate thinking, let alone anywhere near radical Marxism, to suggest that the apparatus of the state has been subservient to the needs of the economy for some time. Indeed, I was delighted to see that my party, the Liberal Democrats, argued that the government’s prime focus should shift from economic growth to wellbeing as part of their 2019 manifesto. As I will return to later though, the electoral failure of this manifesto points to the disconnect between a possible future which surely appeals to the ‘moderate middle majority’ of the electorate, but doesn’t cut through for whatever reason.

Shifting the focus of the government and the state to wellbeing shouldn’t be a hard sell. It needn’t mean a drastic shift in policy at all. All it means is that we are putting people’s wellbeing, their opportunities and futures at the heart of policy-making. It little bit like a broader, more fundamental version of David Cameron’s ‘family test’ for policy. So whilst more investment in local government might require some increased taxation, which may not be the best option from a growth perspective, it is the right thing to do from a wellbeing perspective. Of course, wellbeing relies on economic success. We need a strong economy to generate taxes and, equally importantly, people need good jobs, with good salaries and actually just a quality work experience as part of a fulfilling life (Howard Gardner, amongst others, has done some interesting work around the notion of ‘good work’). So shifting the focus to wellbeing is not left-wing nor socialist. It isn’t going to cripple the economy. It just requires policy-making to be more balanced, so that social, economic, cultural and environmental outcomes are considered together. Actually, this kind of policy-making is likely to be economically beneficial in the long-term as it generates better educated people, healthier workers, attractive communities for people to live and work in, all of which make it easier for businesses to thrive and to do so across the whole of the country, with no ‘left behind’ places.

Obsessions are distractions, principles need a story

Our obsessions with quantification and economic growth have stopped us delivering a state and institutions which could be better for people. The frustration is that we know this. We can see how these obsessions are holding us back – exam factories failing young people, hospitals not able to meet care needs, local government not providing quality services. We also know how we can improve our institutions for the betterment of society. This is far from just increasing investment though. So much policy-making is driven by quantification, economic growth or other irrelevant ideologies. I say irrelevant because they lead to policy choices which fly in the face of evidence. When we go against evidence, we go against common sense. A fairly uncontroversial aspect of liberal politics is to go with evidence and common sense.

To return to education for an example. The curriculum reforms instigated by Michael Gove had some laudable motivations, such as an appreciation that schools needed to provide knowledge to everyone as knowledge is empowering. Gove didn’t quite put it like that, but the ‘knowledge turn’ wasn’t the problem. The devil was in the detail, or rather the amount of detail. GCSE reforms in particular saw far too much subject content being detailed. Teachers and schools complain about the time pressure of getting learners to master the content required in the time available. This isn’t to say teachers are not ambitious. Far from it. Teachers are just aware that the content demands and time constraints fly in the face of the cognitive science which tells us how the brain learns. We understand more now than ever before about how we learn, including the speed with which people can assimilate given volumes of knowledge. Chunking, spaced learning, retrieval practice, working memory, long-term memory, recall. We know how the brain works. Unfortunately, what we know about how the brain works suggests that it is very difficult for the majority of learners to memorise the huge amounts of content now required of them by new GCSEs. There is only so much we can transfer into long-term memory at a time (note, transfer into not store – once its there, we can store lots, this is about the speed with which people can do the storing). This is a huge barrier, not aided by the social factors around education performance in terms of the conditions which young people need to optimise learning and memorising.

And just as an aside, in case you’re wondering why I’m talking about memory and you think I’m reducing education to rote learning, I am not. In order to understand concepts and perform higher-order skills (e.g. analysis, evaluation, prediction, etc) we need to have a body of knowledge with which to embed that understanding and practice those higher-order skills. Quite simply, we need to remember stuff in order to learn, understand and do even more.

Anyway, back to the disconnect between curriculum content and cognitive science. The fact that we can identify this disconnect should be all that needs to be said. Why, in the face of evidence, do we then introduce curriculum content which we know will be problematic for teaching and learning?

This is just one example of the disconnect (if you want to know my thoughts on what the alternative would look like in terms of curriculum, to avoid this disconnect and far more besides, see that previous blog of mine). Measurement, economy and ideology – or just an ignorance of evidence – is stopping our state and society from being better and surely that shouldn’t be a hard sell.

(I don’t mention short-term thinking here, which is also a major concern – one problem I’m particularly interested in is how policy-makers and especially politicians have ignored obvious problems looming on the horizon, leaving others to carry the can. For example, creating an NHS but not recognising and responding appropriately to the consequential challenges to pensions, social care and the transition from treating acute to chronic health conditions flies in the face of the common sense that providing free healthcare would lead to those challenges. Maybe that could be a future blog).

Would it be a hard sell to voters – who ultimately are asked to choose between the status quo and alternative possible futures – to say we’re going to have less content because cognitive science suggests its not working for many young people. Or would it be a hard sell to argue for the principle of a more holistic education which empowers people, rather than just based on exam performance. Again, just as with wellbeing, a broader more holistic education by definition has to include economic empowerment. It is no good educating people if that education doesn’t enable people to have a fulfilling working life. This isn’t asking ‘the economy’ to make sacrifices. Education just wouldn’t stop with economic concerns.

Is this kind of holistic education a better narrative than the status quo? Think about it – exam factories, stress, one-size fits all, lack of vocational and creative opportunities, etc. The problems of the status quo in education (read also health, benefits system, etc) are clear and obvious. They are also known to a sizeable chunk of the public. So why are alternative narratives not being chosen over the status quo?

As the 2019 General Election showed, people voted for (almost) the status quo. (Amazingly, Boris Johnson pulled off the feat of campaigning against his own party’s record in government over the past nine years). Some people suggest this reflects where the British public resides politically/ideologically: that we are a small ‘c’ conservative country. I think this may apply more broadly to the human race, as conservatism does appeal to basic human instincts – looking after yourself and your family, providing shelter and security. Whether you agree that there is an element of truth to this, the suggestions I’ve discussed above don’t propose swinging the pendulum to some statist or socialist alternative that seems too far from the natural comfort zone of our national political culture. They are moderate, centrist and evidence-based policy suggestions. Radical only insofar as to challenge vested interests and ideologies which don’t actually empower ordinary people to take more control over their lives (Anand Giridharadas put together a fantastic work on how global elites have become masters of virtue signalling and nominally tackling social and environmental issues, whilst not changing the power structures or vested interests which cause those issues to persist).

One mistake we shouldn’t fall into, which is often the stance taken by ideologues and idealists (Momentum take note…), is to work on the assumption that you are correct and the electorate will eventually wake up to that fact and change their mind. You have to see where the middle of the electorate is – that determines the centre ground in my opinion, rather than the mid-point between the left- and right-parties. Look for the ‘middle ground majority’. It is self-evident truth that the majority lies between the extremes. In a democracy, we must govern with the will of the majority and it seems the best way to find that majority is to govern from the centre, for the centre. I am not suggesting a complete capitulation of principles, but without power to enact those principles, they become a matter for philosophical debate not making a difference. By interpreting your principles in a way which appeals to the electorate (a la John Precott’s description of New Labour as ‘traditional values in a modern setting’), perhaps even ‘meeting them halfway’, then you can win the power and influence you need to shape policy and the future of the country.

As well as having a narrative, it is also in part a problem with communicating that narrative. As I said at the beginning, conservatives often do a fantastic job of selling their narrative, often with a resonant slogan (although ‘Strong and Stable’ was a rarer flop). I don’t think liberals and progressives do a very good job of packaging all the good things they have to say about empowering people, creating and spreading opportunity or scrapping vested interests. Sadly, the language which should be the cornerstone of the liberal lexicon is actually hijacked by conservatives, who then talk about ‘equalling up’ or social mobility as though they’ve been concerned about those problems all along or that they’re ever going to truly solve them. There is an issue over who controls communication channels, but I think the first challenge liberals and progressives have to deal with is that which they can control, namely what their big narrative is and how that narrative is better than the conservative alternative. As I’ve just scratched the surface of in this blog, there is lots of good thinking out there about where we are as a society and where we could be. This could add to a compelling narrative. Is it a winning narrative? Who knows. That is for us to communicate and for the electorate to decide.

A big narrative needs a simple but powerful message at its heart, that can be repeated ad nauseam and will thread together all aspects of the story. To me, the idea around empowering people and human flourishing is the key to a liberal narrative. That isn’t rebranding class politics (For The Many, Not The Few) and isn’t a token nod to an inequality which you were responsible for creating and don’t really want to fully solve (One Nation). It isn’t taking a scatter gun approach of having distinct policies for each group which the electorate can be split into, which can often lead to incoherence with no unifying thread. It’s the message which sums up, in a nutshell, what you stand for and which allows people to realise how you tick and how you’re going to change their lives. I won’t suggest a slogan, I haven’t got one (yet). I know this needs more work, but as with most of my posts it is a ‘work in progress’ (and a work about progress! – how clever).

As always, I’d be very interested to hear people’s thoughts on this.

What does a policy response to ‘powerful knowledge’ look like?

English schools are currently going through something of a ‘knowledge turn’, with a renewed emphasis on the curriculum and the learning of substantial subject knowledge. Whilst this may be considered a step in the right direction, we might not yet be heading to the right destination. This ‘work in progress’ post argues for a powerful knowledge-rich curriculum and considers the broader education policy framework which would enable this.

The Gove curriculum reforms of the Coalition government could be viewed as the starting point of the ongoing knowledge turn in English schools. As the debate at the time went though, the new greater levels of subject content, especially at GCSE and A-Level, were not necessarily being introduced with the best rationale. While knowledge was rightly considered important, knowledge was granted as fixed and inert. Very little effort was made to justify why exactly the subject content had been chosen. Learners were just having passed on to them the best that has been thought and said, with Matthew Arnold’s quote included in the National Curriculum document itself.

Gove’s policy changes though were not the only factor behind the knowledge-rich craze now sweeping the land. Arguably of even greater importance has been Ofsted’s renewed focus on the curriculum. With schools scrambling around to ensure they can explain the intent, implementation and impact of their curriculum, this shift from the inspectorate, together with a growing emphasis on cognitive science and in particular the relationship between learning and memory (also a contentious element of Ofsted’s new framework), is why knowledge-rich curriculum is seemingly the number one education buzzword as we enter the 2020s.

So with knowledge organisers wizzing off photocopiers and Amazon being flooded with books on retrieval practice, it appears knowledge is back. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to be treating knowledge in the right way. Knowledge is not fixed and inert. Knowledge is dynamic and open to challenge. That is why knowledge is so important – it allows young people to understand the world and to challenge how the world works. Today’s learners will be tomorrow’s knowledge makers. As such, they need to have a better grasp of where knowledge comes from. Knowledge is more than the facts that can be dredged from a Google search. It is a body of interrelated concepts, expressed through a specialist vocabulary, that is produced and constantly renewed by an established set of disciplinary processes. Be it the library archives for the historian, the laboratories of the chemist or the focus groups of the sociologist, knowledge is produced in a way which makes it knowledge. It gains its identity and status as knowledge as the very result of the processes by which it is made. That isn’t reflected by the way we currently treat knowledge in English schools and as a result we’re missing a trick. If young people understand where knowledge comes from and why experts are worth listening to (not, however, blindly followed) then they need to have a more socialised appreciation of knowledge. Maybe, just maybe, this could tackle those worrying issues like fake news and the souring nature of political discourse, but that is just one of the reasons to do it.

One of the main reasons to shift to this social realist approach to powerful knowledge, is because it addresses deeper questions around why we teach what we do and the very purpose of education. The social realist approach and powerful knowledge was introduced by academic Michael Young who, having long argued that knowledge reflected a power struggle and recreating elites (knowledge of the powerful), actually recognised that the very point of schooling is to give everybody access to powerful knowledge because it is powerful. Powerful knowledge is not everyday knowledge, it cannot be gained easily by other means. To not give some learners powerful knowledge gives a greater chance of social elites being recreated. That is because powerful knowledge is empowering knowledge. It allows young people to not only understand their place in the world but also how to shape their world, starting with understanding and shaping that knowledge itself.

Drawing on Amartya Sen’s work on development, some academics such as David Lambert have discussed powerful knowledge in the terminology of ‘capabilities’ – where people can act and think differently as a result of their powerful knowledge-rich education. This is a more intellectually robust justification to teaching knowledge than we currently have through the National Curriculum and exam specifications. It should also guide educator’s in the selection and teaching of the knowledge.

As teachers are developing their curriculum, they should be thinking about those big questions – why am I teaching this? What will the learner be able to do or think differently if they learn this? By rigorously constructing our curriculum with all the content choices standing up to these questions, we start to move beyond education as an economic conveyor belt or schools as exam factories. We start to think about education as the key to human flourishing.

Another substantial benefit of this approach is that it shifts the selection of content away from political interference. The curriculum choices are taken by teachers, with those questions of educational purpose in mind. As such, the curriculum becomes both intellectually defensible and independent. This would be a significant improvement on the growing politicisation of the curriculum over several decades, where governments adjust the curriculum to suit whichever fad , whim or moral panic is occupying the tabloid front pages.

So that, in a nutshell, is where we’re aiming for. Not just a knowledge-rich curriculum but a powerful knowledge-rich curriculum. If we are going to make this a reality then, what does the education policy framework need to look like? Some thoughts:

  • Schools and teachers are already being expected to be paying more attention to the curriculum due to Ofsted’s new framework. Whilst the motivation is questionable, the activity is essential. Teachers should be thinking about their curriculum and those big questions of purpose. If teachers are to do this though, they need time and training:
  • Quite simply, teachers need more PPA time to have this level of engagement with the curriculum. Far from this being a one-off, the need to constantly be reviewing the curriculum and ensuring the correct pedagogic choices are made to compliment a powerful knowledge-rich approach is a continuous job.
  • Teachers will need training. For too long, the curriculum is something that has largely been done to teachers not done by teachers. Indeed, much of the panic around Ofsted’s new framework is that lots of teachers feel ill-equipped to address those issues of intent, implementation and impact, having for so long been focused on pedagogy and doing whatever the DfE and exam boards have deigned important.
  • Just on this point, where does this leave exam boards? Clearly they can’t go anywhere. They need to be having the same discussions as teachers and actually further enhance the collaboration with the subject specialist communities to ensure that specifications reflect what is considered to be powerful and empowering in each subject.
  • Whilst we’re on the point of boards and qualifications, what about vocational qualifications? They don’t meet the powerful knowledge box do they? Far from it. We mustn’t mistake powerful knowledge with examinable knowledge. Just because it isn’t ‘academic’ doesn’t mean it isn’t a) knowledge or b) powerful. All subjects though, whatever their focus and however they are assessed, should seek to teach what is empowering to young people.
  • Back to training, there is a glut of curriculum-based training however a lot of this can be judged, perhaps unfairly, perhaps cynically, as cashing in on the new fad. We need to make a lasting change. The best way for teachers to feel equipped to make these curriculum choices is to be part of vibrant communities of practice consisting of fellow subject specialists. So encouraging subject associations, with more resources for departments in schools so that all schools and teachers can engage with these communities is one practical suggestion. Again, giving teachers time to engage is crucial. Also, on a slight tangent, though massively relevant, is to ensure subjects are taught by specialists in the vast majority of cases. Sorting out unfair funding will do this to some extent.
  • So far I have been discussing continuous professional development, which must be done properly and is best done by allowing teachers to connect with communities of fellow specialists. We also need to make sure that the subject components of initial teacher training are not further eroded. The shift from university-based to school-based ITT has furthered the focus on pedagogy at the cost of subject specialism and curriculum thinking. New entrants to the profession need to understand the key concepts around curriculum and the debates in their subject around how powerful knowledge is selected, justified and taught in the necessarily critical and reflective way. This is difficult to do where there is no moderating role for subject specialist teacher educators who understand these issues. Whilst this may not require significant university input, it is an obvious role for university education departments to fulfil.
  • How would accountability work in this powerful knowledge-rich world? Going back a step, this entire approach requires a ‘re-professionalisation’ of teachers, both in terms of how teachers are treated and how teachers view themselves as a result. Teachers given the time, training and, yes, inclination to work amongst communities of fellow professionals to ensure that the content they’re teaching is empowering for the young people in their charge. This requires collaboration to be an integral part of the day job, not just within schools but between schools. As part of this collaboration, reflection and peer review should be a natural part. This should be constructively critical, with an emphasis on mutual support and continuous improvement. This would be a far more beneficial, humane and constructive accountability system. For sure, there is a role for some kind of national surveying, to review the state of education, highlight best practice and identify support needs. That should be the role for the government inspectorate, there as a source of support and expertise rather than as a source of stress which has historically done far more to undermine and de-professionalise teachers.

I hope to reflect upon, develop and unpack the thoughts in this quite rambling post. I am very conscious there may be some ideas which need clarifying and there are no doubt plenty of gaps in making this a coherent framework. Some of the points made could be whole posts in themselves, but I don’t want to make myself too much of a hostage to fortune. I’d be very interested to hear any feedback on these ideas. You can e-mail me on ryan@ryanbate.org.

On reflection: September approaches

Like some kind of Game of Thrones season finale, four weeks of the summer holiday have passed: it is coming. Together with teaching colleagues across the world currently on a summer break, I am filled with the usual mix of anxiety, foreboding and excitement. What will the new school year bring? Will it be as horrendous as my worst nightmares predict? What opportunities could the year entail?

Again, as like so many colleagues, I have a to-do list so long and labour-intensive that only a demob happy teacher in July, dragging themselves to the end of year and simply relieved to have survived another 39-weeker, would ever consider realistic. I have two schemes of work to review as, for a third year running, we try to get a grasp on curriculum change and really try to hit the high standards we’re aspiring to but haven’t yet had the amount of time we’d like to really nail all the right notes. Sitting in a friend’s porch whilst I stay for a summer break, I have a new KS3 textbook in my suitcase, waiting to inspire me. So far I have preferred to read the hardbacks I brought with me – The World As It Is, about the Obama White House from the perspective of his staffer Ben Rhodes, and Smoke and Ashes, the third book by Abir Mukherjee set in Colonial India. I have just started Bullshit Jobs, by David Graeber, having picked it up following his talk at the Hay Festival back in June. I’m just on the first chapter where he’s defining the concept of a bullshit job and, at the particular section I’m at, distinguishing between a ‘bullshit job’ and just a ‘shit job’. I’ve yet to meaningfully use his typology with reference to the teaching profession; although from what little I’ve read so far it appears it would not be considered a bullshit job, but maybe at times a shit one.

Whilst not necessarily a deliberate act of procrastination, I seem to be finding many  more links via Facebook, Twitter and the web in general which are proving interesting reads. In particular, Tom Sherrington and Oliver Caviglioli seem to be doing their level best to distract me and make me think about all manner of educational topics, whilst I should be getting on with some planning for September. I appreciate that their incredibly wise words and visuals are designed to help me at this very time of planning and preparing for the new school year. Yet I am sure I’m not alone in feeling that I’d need to delay the start of term for another six weeks off (err, turkey voting for Christmas?) in order to digest the sheer volume of useful information which is now out there for teachers.

A few items in particular stand out from these two gentlemen’s venerable arsenals of educational know-how:

  • 10 essential discussions to have in any teacher team (Tom Sherrington) This is amazing. As a middle leader with time to plan with my department on INSET day, let alone throughout the year, this was such a good summary of the key discussions to be had and decisions which need to be reached through those discussions. I’ve already clipped it to my Evernote and will be plotting how to get through the different aspects over the first days and weeks of the new year.
  • Oliver Caviglioli’s posters Wow, I know I’m not the only one impressed by this growing collection of visually captivating and content-rich posters which summarise an expanding range of all the best thinking in education, but what a great resource.
  • Evidence-Informed Ideas Every Teacher Should Know About  (Tom Sherrington) I guess as a response to the problem that I (and many other teachers) set out about having time, Tom has produced a masterful summary of educational ideas, presented clearly and succinctly but with more references and links than you could shake a stick at. All the documents he references, and more, are gathered here for your convenience, just to add to your guilt for watching another episode of The Crown on Netflix whilst you could be reading Rosenshine.

So this is my ‘relaxing’ (with a little work) holiday, having done my ‘doing’ holiday. Spending a week touring some of the landmarks and memorials from the First and Second World Wars was at once humbling, harrowing and thought-provoking. Yet the trip came as a reaction to a school trip to France earlier in the year when we visited Bayeux, even the Tapestry museum’s gift shop, but I didn’t have the chance to see the historic artefact. What started as a joke that I’d go back to France to see it was combined with an interest I’ve had, for a number of years now, to revisit some of the WW1 battlefields that I’d first seen as a student on a school trip back in 2001.

This time, we’d do some of the same things – attending the Menin Gate ceremony or visiting Thiepval are things which never cease to register – whilst also taking in some new places, not least the D-Day beaches of Normandy which would be completely new to me. Arriving in Dunkirk, it was chilling to put some sense of dimensions and scale to the famous evacuation. Then within the next five days we visited Ypres, Tyne Cot, Langemarck, Passchendaele, Vimy Ridge, Notre Dame de Lorette, Arras, Beaumont Hamel, Thiepval and Peronne. All of these places – some new and some revisited, a mixture of cemeteries, museums and battlefield memorials – collectively gave a sense of the scale of the loss and the tragedy. They spoke of the futility facing the soldiers in the trenches and of a military and political hierarchy that was out of kilter with technological and social progress; 19th century tactics were trying to direct 20th century technology. It was little wonder that the war contributed to so much economic, political and social change around the world, including votes for women, a revolution in Russia and a rebalancing of the international order with the USA moving to its apex. Yet for the resultant changes, some of which were undeniably positive, walking along kilometres of lines of graves makes you question how on earth so much could be lost for so little.

In contrast to the death and unnecessary loss of the First World War, the story told along the D-Day beaches struck a different note. What in Flanders’ fields had been needless loss was now more noble sacrifice. The American Cemetery above Omaha Beach is both spectacular and sad. The loss of life was terrible, especially at Omaha compared to the other beaches, but at least there was some clarity about why so many young men gave their lives on the beaches and throughout the Second World War. What is remarkable is that the full extent of the Nazi regime’s evil was unknown at that time to the men who approached Normandy, by boat or by plane, as was the horror that awaited them on the beaches. Still they fought with bravery, often with little regard for their own safety, their only thought being to their comrades and their mission. Alongside the bravery of the men, the scale of the operation and the planning and technological innovation which underpinned it is astonishing. Visiting Arromanche, seeing the remains of the Mulberry harbour which would supply the Battle of Normandy is staggering. Also staggering was a speech by General Eisenhower, the text displayed in the museum at the American Cemetery, which he wrote on the eve of D-Day. It outlined that despite detailed planning and immense bravery, the landings had failed and the troops withdrawn. Eisenhower praised all those involved and took full and sole responsibility. Thankfully he never had to give that speech; the fact that he wrote it offers some insight into his exceptional leadership and character.

Amidst the stories of sacrifice and sorrow, I did get my chance to see the Bayeux Tapestry. Walking its length, having the story and context explained to me via audioguide, it was in some ways fitting to set this artefact alongside the memorials we’d be visiting from more recent wars. Like those memorials of stone, this tapestry was marking an historic moment. Like those memorials, it told a certain version of the events and yet, like those memorials, it still did something to capture the brutality of war and did not gloss over that for the pursuit of power and the practice of politics, ordinary people are caught up with their lives inexorably changed or even ended, for reasons which they may not know, at the time or forever. When I visit museums or historic sites, I always try to do two things – establish the wider context, to place this particular exhibit or site, and then appreciate the individual stories involved. So in my trip, which covered episodes across 1,000 years of European and global history, it was interesting to see that that interplay between power and ordinary people has been consistently recorded and that some things – the brutality of war, the maelstrom which ordinary people are thrown into by decisions taken far away from them, both geographically and socially, and the human desire to record our stories, our history – do not change.

Place Studies (Work in progress)

As part of the new A-Level course, my class are studying ‘Changing Places’. It is refreshing and daunting to be teaching the quite challenging concepts involved with place. A further novel aspect of the new topic is the requirement of developing ‘place studies’ of a ‘local’ and ‘distant’ place.

Four themes to explore:

  • Similarity
  • Difference
  • Continuity
  • Change

Local place: WARRINGTON TOWN CENTRE

Settling on a local place is more challenging that you’d expect. It has to be somewhere which students have direct experience of, yet it also has to be a relatively small place (the suggested population being in the 10,000-20,000 range). Add to this the need for a range of quantitative and qualitative sources to be available on the place and it became clear that we’d have to choose Warrington town centre. It is important to distinguish that it is the town centre and not the whole town. In actual fact, it is the electoral ward of Bewsey & Whitecross, which covers the town centre, with some reference to neighbouring wards.

Luckily in the age of Google, a huge amount of information is available digitally, not least from Warrington Borough Council. The plethora of quantitative data could be expected though. What is quite amazing, when doing the research, is the amount of articles, poems, stories, songs, photographs and paintings all about Warrington. So much so that it is quite a joy to piece all of the information together in a kind of geographical tapestry that shows a range of forces causing change over time.

Warrington Borough Council provides population facts and figures, including information about specific wards and population change. They also have a document about Warrington’s 2011 Census data.

There is a host of information about people, places, pubs and poetry to do with Warrington on All Things Warrington.

Distant place: SPITALFIELDS & BANGLATOWN

The idea of using Spitalfields as the distant place came as I was visiting London and stayed nearby, but still in Tower Hamlets. Visiting the British Library I saw Dan Cruickshank’s book on Spitalfields. With a little more research, it became clear that there was a plethora of information available to support a place study on Spitalfields and ‘Banglatown’, which would encompass Brick Lane.

A wonderful resource has been the Spitalfields Life blog, which has thousands of articles covering all aspects of place and incorporating a range of other visual and textual resources.

There are also websites about retail in Spitalfields – Spitalfields and Old Spitalfields Market, giving an insight into the local economy and also examples of representation of place.

Another useful website is the Spitalfields Forum – a group of residents trying to create a neighbourhood plan and protect Spitalfields from development. There are lots of useful resources, including videos and maps.

Statistics about Spitalfields and Banglatown are available from Tower Hamlets Borough Council and the Greater London Authority.

How change happens – some initial thoughts

Last Thursday, I took some sixth formers along to Chester University to hear Duncan Green launch his new book, How Change Happens. Having heard Duncan speak at a Geographical Association conference a few years ago and having dipped into his previous book From Poverty to Power (as with so many books I buy, I have never read it from cover to cover, but enjoy the idea that I still could one day), I was really looking forward to the lecture. In fact, taking the students was an excuse to go. I would’ve probably made excuses if it was just down to me to go, but an external commitment made it a reality!

Anyway, this isn’t a review of the book – I haven’t read it yet! I have read the introduction. Rather, this is a reflection of Duncan’s talk. He is a really engaging speaker and something of a (self-acknowledged) lucky sod. He has the job which many people would like. He literally has a job that,  by his own admission (though I’m sure with a little exaggeration) he makes up as he goes along. A significant amount of his time is reading, researching and reflecting upon ideas which are of interest to him. Wow. Who wouldn’t like that job? I digress though; what did Duncan have to say?

Well, first of all, he made clear that the book was written with development as a backdrop, but the concepts included – about how change happens – are much more widely applicable. Indeed throughout the lecture I thought at a number of times how it applies to my work as a teacher and a local politician. This is really interesting – to have a generic theory of change, of achieving change, in whatever field we are working. How does this change actually happen then?

If only it were so simple to say how change happens. Green spent much of his time talking about how current and prevalent theories of change aren’t actually that useful. Most people acknowledge that they operate, at whatever scale, in a complex world/system. Yet, when we try to enact change, we often try a ‘linear’ approach. He likened this to making ‘the cake’: we assemble ingredients, get a recipe and buy an oven. We try to do a ‘project’. Sometimes this works, but how do we know this? How can we quantify or qualify the impact of a stimulus on a complex system? Yet we seek out a positive change and then attribute it to the project – ‘development professionals learn to lie’. This is equally true of professionals in any number of fields who try to attribute success to their intervention, ignoring the complex web of factors at work.

Rather than change being the result of a linear project model, Green suggests, quite persuasively, that change is:

  • Unpredictable and unattributable
  • Often resulting from large critical junctures (or ‘shocks’)
  • Path dependent and context specific – i.e. one size does not fit all. Each system is unique but we come to it with ‘kits’ and ‘plans’.

Instead, Green suggests that to work out how to make change happen, we need to analyse where power lies within a given system. For this, Green refers to the ‘4 powers’ model of Rowlands. This involves power within –  people acknowledging their own power, sometimes requiring a ‘lightbulb moment’; power with – the power of collaborating and organising; power to – the ability to influence decisions; and finally power over – control over decisions and systems.  We need to analyse the ‘ecosystem of power’ to work out who we need to get on board and how we can effect change. This was all fascinating, because it seemed to universally applicable, way beyond development issues. Power analysis wasn’t the most interesting aspect of Green’s talk however, because he also talked about how we need to approach change ourselves.

Whilst not quoting Gandhi, Green’s discussion of how we need to approach the issue of change did remind me that ‘all the tendencies present in our world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.’ I know you were expecting ‘be the change you want to see in the world’, but Just Googled that (who needs teachers?) and discovered this must be one of the greatest misquotes ever! Anyway, I have digressed again, the point Green was making – without misquoting Gandhi – is that we could change our own approach in order to analyse power effectively and bring about change. Green suggests four qualities which people need to embody:

  • Curiosity – we should ‘learn to dance with the system’ and always be asking questions.
  • Humility – we must embrace ambiguity and uncertainty.
  • Reflexivity – we must be conscious of our role, include multiple perspectives, look at the unusual suspect an be open to different ways of seeing the world.

In terms of those questions:

  • What kind of change are we looking at? Policy, practice, or social norms.
  • What precedents can we learn from?
  • What kinds of power are at work? How could it be redistributed?
  • How will we know if change is happening?

Having analysed power, we then need to act with fast feedback and response, changing our approach as we go in the face of complexity. As I said, all very transferable to most aspects of life. Refreshing thinking, but how do we get this thinking happening more widely. That is a change in itself!

I hope you’ll agree, all very interesting. All very transferable. Indeed, I am doing a course with work as I am a new ‘middle leader’. I can already see how some of Green’s ideas could influence my school improvement project that forms a key part of that course. I’ll hopefully blog again, both about implementation in an educational system and once I’ve digested the book properly – if I ever get around to reading it!

Good life, good politics

At the start of 2015 I wrote a post about progress. At the time, I’d been reading some work by US psychologist and educational Howard Gardner and looked at notions of social progress and the role of education within this. Since then, I have naturally but not deliberately continued on something of an intellectual journey in which the notion of progress has always been there, not always in the foreground, but there nonetheless. Around about June 2015, I read a really interesting piece by Jonathan Rowson of the RSA. Rowson re-examines the notion of progress and suggests a spiritual quality, relating to personal and political transformation. I found this really provocative and a useful counterweight to John Gray’s dismissal of the notion of social progress, where he argues that scientific and technological progress does not necessarily transfer into other aspects of society.

Obviously in 2016, notions of progress have been shook to the core by Brexit and Trump, to name just two events. Much is said about Brexit and Trump. That they represent discontent in society; a growing feeling that some people who, for a range of reasons, had become disenfranchised. As a result they opted for electoral choices that fly in the face of values held by many people. It must be remembered, though this is an aside, that in the case of Brexit, a majority, and in the case of Trump, almost half of voters, actually wanted the option that others found abhorrent.

Does this signal a breakdown in liberal politics? This is the suggestion of John Gray. His argument features plenty of food for thought. Globalisation, both economic and political, has left many behind and in a range of ways. There are economic losers, whose jobs disappeared to newly emerging economies or whose wages have been under downward pressure due to foreign-made products. Of course, this is not purely an economic story. Communities and ways of life had their foundations shattered as factories and collieries closed down. This is just part of the wider issue that people do not feel that liberal politics, broadly defined, does not serve them anymore (if they ever did). Free trade, open borders, foreign intervention, even political correctness. Both domestically and abroad, people see what liberal governments offer and do not like what they see. At home, people want to see their job projected see traditional institutions, such as marriage, protected. Abroad, the great question of whether the Western model of democracy and human rights, labelled as universal by the West, could be successfully introduced to societies not familiar with them. Not only does this see backlashes abroad, as witnessed in post-invasion Afghanistan and Iraq, but also leaves people at home questioning the cost of such interventions, both human and financial. The sense that the UK and USA should put their own people first was a major thread of campaign narratives for both Brexit and Trump.

If you accept that these, to some extent, are failings in liberal politics, then one questions what the response of liberal politics might be. Here, Gray suggests that liberals simply suggest more of the same, just to even greater levels. I can see his point and don’t believe that moving to the extreme is a good response to another extreme, in the shape of populism or nationalism. Nick Clegg, in his memoir, supports the notion of acting from the centre-ground. I’m not sure if this is quite the same as what Gray advocates in suggesting that the political class need to re-address some of the values which underpin their countries. This itself is a key point which Gray makes – the future of politics is national, not global. Further acceptance of unrestrained, neoliberal globalisation does not seem viable.

So what is the way forward? What, if anything, can be identified as a common lesson from studying the victories of Brexit, Trump, the suggested death of liberalism and Nick Clegg’s call for centrism? I think it requires us -not just politicians, but everybody – to re-assess our answers to some deep questions. These questions can roughly be boiled down to what does ‘the good life’ mean?

I first came across this question in that book mentioned earlier, by Howard Gardner. Gardner, having moving on from multiple intelligences, now believes that the core purpose of education and society more widely, should be about truth, beauty and goodness. It should be about empowering people to lead fulfilling lives. Some would say that this amounts broadly to the ideals of progressive politics. I think it would be more productive to avoid anybody trying to take ownership of such a fundamental notion as how to lead a good life. Rather than suggesting ideologies address this notion, why not instead ask those deep questions such as: what should schools teach? What is the point of work? What should the role of the state be in people’s lives?

There is a growing interest, both academic and popular, amongst people, in happiness and wellbeing. Paul Dolan writes about happiness being down to choices, about a balance between pleasure and meaning. Simon Sinek talks about the importance of purpose and how living and working ‘together is better‘. These are just two of many thinkers on these important issues. Such interest acknowledges that many people don’t currently have the same opportunities either in terms of pleasure or meaning.

Paying attention to people’s lives, in a holistic way concerned with happiness and wellbeing, is not only about guiding policy choices for politicians, it is also about narrative. Clegg is not the first politician to recognise the importance of narrative. A narrative serves two purposes. It threads a link through a suite of policies, allowing people to see their collective impact and choose a clear future direction. It also allows people to understand their own lives.  Focusing on the ‘good life’ and the importance of ‘good work’ sounds like a powerful idea to me. People will feel recognised by politicians and in turn will recognise how their lives can change.

Maybe this is a way forward to getting people to re-engage with a less extreme and populist kind of politics. It could help to call out those extremists and populists and expose the gap between their rhetoric and the reality of their proposals. Maybe it could also help people to re-identify with liberal values and politics. It should also bring the scale of politics down from the global and even the national, making it about people, their families and their communities. Maybe politics could genuinely be about the good life, for everyone.

Getting ahead

Shortly after being appointed as Head of Geography at my new school, I drafted a post with the intention of sharing my experience with those who may be looking at making their steps towards similar promotions. I deliberately didn’t post it at the time as contracts and such like were confirmed. Having rediscovered the draft, I have tried to tidy up the tenses to publish it now – my apologies if I have missed any and suggested some kind of time travel!

As a child my mother used to tell me that I was always trying to run before I could walk. In truth, I did progress from slithering around to walking, albeit clumsily, very quickly. Given such a mindset it comes as little surprise that I have harboured desires for promotion since I was training to be a teacher. This ambition had been tempered a little in recent years by the comfort of working in a school which I enjoyed being a part of, making me happier to wait a little longer for that internal opportunity, rather than scouting the job adverts constantly in search of new horizons.

Whilst not actively looking for jobs, I would have the occasional look just to see what was happening, as much out of curiosity as anything else. I supposed that if something jumped out at me then that may change things. Well in January, a job did jump out at me: Head of Geography at the school which I did my first teacher training placement at. I always thought that I’d like to work there and what harm would there be to apply and test the water? Then on a temporary TLR and having fallen short of an internal pastoral appointment, it would be informative if nothing else, to see how I benchmarked against other candidates.

So apply I did and having always been capable of putting in a really good covering letter, I wasn’t overly surprised to be shortlisted for interview. The nerves commenced. Naturally I did some thinking about the role and prepared some ideas for how I would fulfil it. Despite training at the school, I arranged to visit and try and fill in what has happened since I left. As chance would have it, it was an Assistant Headteacher who I’d trained with who gave the tour. The vibes were good and the department had great potential; it could be a really good challenge.

In the process of applying I discovered that a really good friend who I’d trained with was also applying and he had also been shortlisted. Come the day of the interview it transpired that we were the only two attending. Knowing just how good he was, it did nothing for the nerves. At least, I thought, I knew that if I was unsuccessful that the job had gone to somebody I rate really highly.

A day of reckoning

The school was really welcoming and the Headteacher made a point of introducing herself before the formal process began. The first task was to prepare a presentation which you would give at the start of the formal interview. The subject of the presentation was your vision and priorities as Head of Geography. Given the preparation I’d done, I was well-placed and confident to do this. I might even go so far to say that I enjoyed it.

Next up was the lesson, which I always worry about most. I appreciate that as a middle leader one needs to have a reasonably clear view on outstanding teaching and learning, but I can’t help but believe that it is still highly subjective, especially when you don’t restrict your view of teaching purely to that defined by Ofsted. I very much wanted to keep things simple as I only had 25-minutes. I think you need to show thoughtful planning, clear delivery and the ability to build excellent relationships with learners. Engagement and pace are also critical, but the trickiest part is how you tackle the issue of demonstrating progress. In my planning I made it very clear that this would be assessed through questioning, debriefing and the completed worksheets. Indeed during the interview, which I will turn to shortly, I stuck my neck on the line by stating my views on demonstrating progress, making my views clear about learners somehow being able to accurately rate their own progress after twenty-five minutes through some form of traffic lights, or level ladder, or thumbs up/down. I think it is important to have clear principles that guide you and I certainly made mine clear!

With the lesson out of the way, it was just the interview left. As I said, I felt that I was well-prepared and that I would be able to communicate what I was all about clearly. I gave my presentation, which seemed to be well received by the panel. I don’t think its appropriate to share exact questions that I was asked after the presentation, nor can I remember all of them anyway, but here are some of the topics which arose:

  • How my teaching career has developed and how I would define it – I said that I placed an emphasis on relationships, with learners and colleagues, looking to ensure that they find geography engaging and enjoyable.
  • What I consider my leadership style to be – providing support and direction, collaborating with people and leading by example.
  • An example of my leadership – I talked about a successful school exchange trip which I had led, which involved the complexity of meeting the needs of a range of stakeholders including learners, colleagues, senior management, support staff, parents and other schools. It also required careful planning. Ultimately again it was about building positive relationships to ensure everything ran smoothly.
  • What my priorities would be as head of department – I said that my first priority, which was continuous, was building a strong and successful team; my short-term priority was introducing the new exam specifications successfully; my longer term challenges were helping to meet English Baccalaureate recruitment whilst making Geography accessible, ensuring KS3 engages learners and supports future success, and building external links to support learners and staff.
  • How I would respond and manage the challenge of the new specifications for Geography at GCSE and A-level – working collaboratively, within the department and beyond the school was essential. I pointed to my experience of delivering Sociology as a new A-level to me and Government & Politics as a brand new A-level at my current school, as evidence that I could take the challenge on intellectually and practically.
  • How I would assure the quality of my department – I discussed methods such as lesson observation and book scrutiny. I said that the most important thing was instilling a culture that such activities were intended to be supportive and not intrusive.
  • What was my view on moving to setting classes by ability – I said that I had experience of setting and mixed-ability classes and could see the benefits and drawbacks of each. Knowing that setting was something the school was looking towards, I said that I would be happy to go with setting so long as there was flexibility to meet the specific needs of individual learners in terms of support, behaviour and so on.
  • How would I deal with an underperforming member of staff I said that this was again a question of leadership style and of ensuring that staff are given the support that they need. When asked what would happen if the support didn’t work, I answered that it would be an issue to escalate to senior leadership.
  • What kind of CPD would I need – the fact that this question was being asked at interview was interesting in itself. At a time when some schools are cutting back on CPD, it was refreshing to know that resources would be available. I said that I wasn’t huge fan of the day-long training course as some kind of silver bullet, preferring instead CPD opportunities which emphasised implementing new initiatives and building a network of support which can be drawn on into the future.

There were also questions about difficult parents and the usual safeguarding questions together with questions on diversity and equal opportunities. I wasn’t sure how long it lasted but wasn’t feeling too beaten up by the end of it.

My friend and I had agreed to have a quick post-match drink after we’d both finished, which we did, although the nerves of waiting for a phone call didn’t make it the easiest of social occasions. I have never enjoyed waiting for anything, but I wasn’t expecting a phone call quite so soon. In fact I was driving on the motorway and luckily was able to take the call on speaker phone, having to apologise if it sounded like I was shouting! It was then a case of trying to maintain lane discipline as I was told that I had been successful and that the job was mine. To make the ending of the story even happier, a week or so later I found out that my friend had been successful as getting his own Head of Department role at another school.

What lies ahead?

Having had something of a ‘smorgasbord’ job that developed over the past four years, including teaching two new subjects at A-level and a responsibility for Geography at Key Stage 3, it is interesting to focus entirely on Geography once again in the new job. There’s plenty of work to do, but there is an opportunity to make a real impact by ensuring that in a period of substantial change, learners can still enjoy and achieve in geography and colleagues can feel supported and successful.

Bittersweet success

I had a good vibe about the school and this was only enhanced by the interview day. I had been looking forward to the new challenge since my appointment and have really enjoyed the role since September. That said I was in the position that I was very happy at my current school, I enjoyed working with the vast majority of the pupils and I continue have so many great friends amongst the staff. I had some amazing opportunities such as the opportunity to teach Sociology (unsought-after but enjoyable) and Government & Politics (strived for and relished); trips to Martha’s Vineyard, Italy and New York; the chance to coach a football team; getting involved in staff training; mentoring PGCE students and hosting numerous performing arts showcases. It would have been easy, perhaps too easy to have stayed, but sometimes you need a change to help shake things up.  I like to think that I left on a high and am keeping in touch with people, both professionally and personally.

A Tale of Three Lessons

Around the start of this school year, I posted a Facebook status commenting on the upcoming year being my fifth as a teacher, which is something of a landmark as a high percentage of teachers leave the profession within the first five years. I remember speaking to somebody I trained with about this and we were discussing what it was that made us hooked on teaching. I had been meaning to put something into a blog for a while, but I hadn’t had the spark until today…

Wednesday is normally a reasonable day – three lessons of geography: top-set Year 8, bottom-set Year 8 and then lower-set Year 10. I am making a much more conscious effort with my feedback and marking this year and am trying to work on the basis of ‘marking is planning’. My Year 10 books were marked and I had pretty much a full lesson revolving around feedback from marking, improvement time and then moving the learning on whilst embedding the skills which I had looked at in their books. That was yesterday’s after school job, which left me with my top-set Year 8 books to mark this morning before I started teaching. Unfortunately I realised I was going to run out of time. No fear I thought though, as I was going to be giving some general feedback and I figured that even those students whose books I hadn’t got around to yet could still make improvements to their work having done some ‘guided self-assessment’. Good idea I thought, in fact if it worked I may even do it deliberately in future.

Anyway, I realised that dedicated improvement and reflection time (DIRT) isn’t something that the kids are used to doing in my lessons, so I had to appropriately introduce it to them so that they engaged with it properly. This made me think of the idea of excellence, or rather Ron Berger’s ‘ethic of excellence’. Whilst I haven’t read Berger’s work (yet), it has been mentioned in a number of other things that I’ve read and I am intrigued by the idea. Of greater relevance for me this morning though, as I was putting the finishing touches to my lesson plan (which I was doing on the basis of my marking), I thought it would really work with my Year 8 top-set. So I had a slide with ‘excellence’ and a definition on. When the lesson started I talked about what the word meant and that these kids in particular had real potential to be excellent (I know that every pupil does, but I was working to my audience!). To become excellent though, I emphasised that the kids had to put the work in. I couldn’t make them excellent, I could only help them to become excellent themselves. Indeed, each pupil has more time and energy to spend reviewing and improving their work than I do, because I have thirty books to read when I am marking, whereas they only need to dedicate their time to their own work, maybe a friend’s too. With this introduction, I went through some of the common issues I’d identified and the pupils got to work checking and improving. The quality of the work was superb; pupils were discussing my feedback, with each other and with me. The buzz in the room was great. Everybody was making progress; for some it might have just been practising a spelling error, whereas for others they were redrafting sections of work, adding new ideas to tables or polishing their sentence structure.

After the DIRT section, I then launched into some individual enquiry. I’ve done lots of enquiry-related work before, drawing on the superb work of Margaret Roberts amongst others. This was the best I think I’ve ever managed it though. At the beginning of our topic, on world sport, I asked the pupil to generate their own questions on sport. It took me ages to type them all up – they were superb. I grouped them into themes, linking them to existing lessons on the scheme of work where possible. I have tried to return to the questions every lesson. For this lesson, there was a glut of questions on factors influencing sporting participation, which we don’t really explore on the scheme of work, so I thought it was an ideal opportunity to go off piste. I displayed the question and got the pupils into pairs or threes. They had to decide which question or questions they would investigate with a view to giving a micro-presentation to the whole class, contributing towards the overall question ‘what are the factors influencing sporting participation’. I got the pupils to plan their investigation and then allowed them to do some research on their phones. The buzz was again superb. Their homework was to do some further research and the intention is to go into the library to continue the investigation next time. Whilst all this was going on, I was also able to mark the remaining books, discussing the feedback with the pupils as I did it. I left the lesson feeling as though I’d done a reasonable job as a teacher. Off to break I want thinking that I deserved my bacon butty.

Break passed by and into bottom-set Year 8 I go. First unexpected twist comes in the form of an unannounced trainee teacher arriving on a pupil trail. Actually I realise that I may have seen a SIMS message about this, but it mustn’t have registered. Launch into the lesson with a first task, drawing on learning from previous lessons. Throw in some atlases for good measure. Second twist comes when pupil leaves the room unexpectedly. Upon investigation I discover than some unkind remarks had been exchanged, so I spend the next five minutes in the corridor discussing this with victim and perpetrators. Whilst in the corridor, a third twist comes in the form of the cover supervisor in the next room asking me to remove a pupil from their class who was refusing to leave. So I spend the next few minutes removing said pupil and doing a Ferguson-esque hairdryer on the class next door, which I then make a point of returning to every ten minutes or so for the rest of the lesson. Sadly the trading of unkind remarks had not been stemmed by my earlier interventions so I was again in and out, following the pretty good PIP & RIP mantra (praise in public but reprimand in private). Come the end of the lesson and I was left wondering what achievement anybody, including myself as a manager of behaviour, had during the lesson. Gone was the glow of break time, but I could hopefully pull it back with my Year 10s.

I change sites on the minibus, really looking forward to getting the class in the right frame of mind for some DIRT. I had some good tasks planned and had the resources in my briefcase. Had a little chat on the bus and it was only as I stepped down off the bus that it dawned on me – Year 10s books are in the boot of my car; my car is still on the lower school car park. The best laid plans were suddenly going to waste. Not to worry though, as by my fifth year of teaching I have developed a modicum of competence in ‘threshold planning’ or ‘three-step planning’ – my lesson was finalised, or in this case amended, in my final three steps across the threshold of my classroom door. Luckily, I had the sheets for the tasks. We had been working on a six-mark exam question and I wanted to really emphasise the importance of getting them right, so I had written an exemplar answer which I wanted the pupils to assess. I got some red pens and we got into it. As chance would have it, a colleague had given me a spare interactive whiteboard pen yesterday so I could debrief the class’ thoughts on screen. They did a really good job, picking out errors, improving the choice of language and adding additional detail. As far as salvaging the lesson was concerned, so far, so good. Then I wanted them to have a go at writing a model answer. ‘Write this on paper’, I said. ‘But sir,’ one boy asks, ‘can’t we just do it in our books?’. ‘No, no, some of you have already got an answer to this question,’ I replied with all my educational wisdom, ‘I want this model answer to be original and not just a rehash of what you did last time’. They seemed to buy that. Indeed, I marked one of the boy’s answers and used this to emphasise to everybody the importance of proof-reading and constantly looking to improve our own work. I had some lovely stuff on feedback being a gift as a way into our DIRT lesson, but that would have to wait until tomorrow. A quick recap of carboniferous limestone, which was planned anyway, and I had managed to make it a productive lesson. As some small bonus, I also have a good chunk of the next lesson planned now…as long as I remember their books then!

So in three lessons I had managed to enjoy pretty much the full spectrum of experience as a teacher. I had enjoyed the pleasure of working with motivated students. I faced the challenge of difficult behaviour. I grimaced and overcame one of those (dis)organisational nightmares, which afflict some of us more frequently than others. I left one lesson feeling the planning and delivery was great and left another wondering whether planning could have made any difference. I had also been through another attempt of continuously improving how I do things in the classroom, of trying to make my teaching and the kid’s learning better than before. For me, this last point leads me back to the allure of teaching. It is that sense of incompleteness, of unfinished business, of unpredictable outcomes and of constantly feeling challenged to push on to the next level. It is a realisation that teaching seems impossible and that as a teacher you seem inadequate – for all the efforts, there always seems to be something more to do, something keeping you from achieving perfection. For some I can understand this to be soul-destroying and yet I think this is what draw many of us, perhaps the sadists amongst us, going strong and with ever-increasing determination. A big reason which drives me as a teacher is the moral duty, the potential to make a difference to people’s lives. I’d like to say that is the only reason, or even the main reason. In truth though, being an obstinate git, a big part of what keeps me coming back every day is that I’m a competitive bugger and I don’t want to admit defeat. I won’t be happy with being just good enough, I’ll do as much as I can to be the best I can. Lots of people say that teaching is the best job in the world and after a day like today (which ended with a 5-0 defeat for my Year 8 football team), I can only smile and agree.

From the archive: Not far from anywhere

Before starting this new blog at the turn of the year, I used to have another blog which dated back to before I started teaching. I was looking through my old posts, some of which are sat offline, and I found one which I really enjoyed. It is about walking, it is geographical and it is about London…

I may look out from my flat window and see the London Eye and the skyscrapers of central London in the distance, but it’s really not that big a city is it? As a visitor to the city, before I moved down permanently, I only ever saw dots of the city; those few hundred square yards around the exit of a Tube station. It’s only since moving down to London that I’ve been able to play dot-to-dot, often by accident, through going on random walks across the city and happening across familiar street-scapes and being able to make those physical and psychological connections across London.

On one of my first days after arriving in London as a resident, I took a stroll from Victoria station, via Parliament and Trafalgar Squares, along the Strand and ending up at St Paul’s cathedral. The first time I’d been to Victoria was arriving in the city – for only the second time in my life – on a National Express coach, en route to the Martin Keown testimonial at Arsenal’s old Highbury Stadium. It was on my very first visit to London that I first went to Chancery Lane, walked past Sainsbury’s headquarters (an odd memory to have of one’s first visit to their nation’s capital I know, but there you go) and saw a sign for Fleet Street. Chance rather than intention lead me to walk past the Sainsbury’s headquarters a first time, but in walking along that route I saw St Paul’s cathedral for the first time (a much more impressive building to remember I’m sure you’ll agree, unless you’re Justin King that is). The walk took about two hours at a gentle pace and took me past Parliament which is something of a would-be career destination and which I’d also glimpsed for the first time on that trip down for the Arsenal game.

That broadly West-East transect was the first time I’d realised how distance and space are relative, dependent on the experience of the individual which gives them context to the place that they’re in. A few week’s after that first wander, I set out from my flat on a glorious sunny day-0ff from work, heading off down Putney Hill and, again on a whim, I decided I’d continue on into central London. I didn’t really know the route I would take, my intention was to make use of the generously distributed signposts (an advantage of urban living). So I headed down Fulham Road, along past Stamford Bridge and meandered through the streets till I hit Sloane Square. It was here I had my first celebrity spotting in London as I brushed shoulders with Stephen Tomkinson, not quite an Oscar-winner or soap star, but I remember Ballykisangel. Fumbling my way on, I came up at the back of the Royal Mews and then Victoria Station (I only realised in hindsight that this involved coming back on myself, but it didn’t feel like it at the time). From then on it was like retracing steps, down Victoria and into Parliament. At least now though, I could say, across two trips, I’d made my way from my flat to the steps of St Paul’s.

This penchant for urban hiking had taken a hiatus, I occasionally happened across new routes from one pocket of the city to another, which I had been familiar with independently without knowing a way between. That was until today, when, after the end of an early kickoff match at Arsenal (a fabulous 6-2 win over Blackburn Rovers, who I’ve watched Arsenal play more than any other team). With nothing to get back to, I set off through the villa-lined streets of Highbury and walked through Highbury Fields. This again brought back memories: the last time I’d been to Highbury Fields was as my father and I searched for Highbury Stadium, walking in quite the wrong and yet more scenic direction. From Highbury Fields I continued to retrace my footsteps of that first visit to watch Arsenal, except rather than boarding the Tube at Highbury & Islington I decided to carry on. Islington reminded me of Hampstead; full of restaurants, bars and other services to entertain the new yuppie population of North London. Continuing down Upper Road I was very much enjoying the late Sunday afternoon sun, which I found strangely in character for Britain in October. Happening across a cross-roads I wondered where to turn next. Looking at the street signs I saw Pentonville Road, which seemed to ring a bell, for some reason I seemed to remember it headed to Kings Cross. I was right. About twenty minutes later I saw the station in the distance. I felt quite chuffed. Was I to board a train here? No. I was having far too much fun.

I’d walked between Euston Road and central London only once before and had a few forays into the streets between the two north-bound stations. It didn’t feel at all new though as many of the place-names were familiar. I spotted the Generator youth-hostel where I’d spent a traumatic night a few years earlier on another of my infrequent visits to the capital. I walked across Bloomsbury Square and there before me was the British Museum. I’d been here before, but only walked between the Museum and the Tube. Pressing on I spotted Shaftesbury – I must have hit theatre district. Turning down one street and then another, I spotted a white-rooftop in the distance, a familiar-looking building, then I realised where I was: Seven Dials. I’d randomly walked from Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium to one of my favourite Indian restaurants! Standing at the centre of the seven-roads, I looked around, appreciating it more fully. I spotted Belgos down one of the shoots – another one of those eateries I’d been to before but couldn’t remember where it was. I was joining dots at an increasingly rapid rate now, I spotted the Duke of York’s theatre and realised that all the times I’d walked across the city, often with a destination in mind, I was oblivious to all the other places I was walking past. Then I was in Trafalgar Square. My walk felt complete; it felt more complete once I’d polished off a frappucino on the Strand.

So in an hour and a half I’d walked from the Emirates, which I’d only ever got to and from via Tube before, to the very heart of London. Moreover, in three separate legs, I could now lay claim to the feat that I’d walked from the door of my flat to my seat at Arsenal. This thought gave me some satisfaction and also helped me realise that with a little free time and a spirit for exploration, you can develop a deeper knowledge of the city and strengthen your sense of place.

Since writing this post in 2o09, I have come across a lot of material on psychogeography and urban hiking, not least Will Self’s columns in the New Statesman. It is funny that just yesterday in one of the fantastic independent bookstores in Vineyard Haven, I saw a book called ‘The Walkable City’, which talks about the interface between urban studies and walking. As I originally tried to demonstrate in this post, it is a small world.

This much I know…about John Tomsett’s book on teaching

I am 28 years old, I have been teaching for five years and this much I know about John Tomsett’s book on teaching.

John Tomsett is the headteacher of a large comprehensive school in York. He has been blogging about his experiences on teaching and school leadership for a number of years, leading to him drawing together his thoughts in this book This Much I Know about Love Over Fear: Creating a culture of truly great teaching. Tomsett states his intended audience to be school leaders, but as a classroom teacher myself (albeit with possible leadership aspirations) I found the book truly remarkable and inspiring.

Tomsett stresses the importance of cultures and values. He points out that the single most important factor to all teachers improving their practice is the school culture (p29). This struck a chord with me personally as I have always believed that if you put the correct cultures in place, the rest will follow. Previously I had perhaps looked at the need for a strong culture from a pupil perspective, but it is of course equally important to teachers. We must feel that we can improve, that we will be critically but constructively guided and, most importantly, that we want to improve.

In emphasising a focus on school culture, Tomsett is not naive and readily identifies the potential risks. Two risks in particular stand out: firstly, the risk that you don’t appear to be following the Ofsted model, which many would see as a precarious approach in the current political climate and secondly, that such an approach takes time and therefore the patience of stakeholders, neither of which seem to be abundant in said political climate.

To create a culture for truly great teaching, Tomsett talks about getting the conditions for growth right. This is something he has borrowed from Ken Robinson, who talks about taking an ‘agricultural model of education’ rather than a factory model (p90 and 188). Tomsett discusses the prevalence of fear in many aspects of the educational community at the moment, but recognises that fear destroys workplace culture like nothing else (p89). A key part of a positive school culture is about teachers’ relationships with students and that by improving those relationships, you improve teaching and learning (p97).

Instead of a climate of fear, Tomsett has tried to create a culture of reflective practice. To do this he explains that in his school, they make the subtle but incredibly powerful distinction that the emphasis needs to be on teaching and not on teachers – it is not about the person, but what they are doing (p12). This depersonalises all conversations about improvement and avoids people taking offence. In another point which perhaps goes against the prevailing wind in education at the moment, Tomsett discusses how comment-only feedback is recognised as a powerful tool for students and goes on to question why this is not the case for teachers.

Tomsett recognises that a school’s greatest resource is teachers and that teachers greatest resource is time. Therefore he makes sure that professional development is a part of all of his staff’s routine, but that it is worthwhile and not onerous. All of his school’s CPD is in-house, co-ordinated by one of his leadership team whose title is ‘Head of Research’. Tomsett sees the value of research but realises that it must be tailored to his school and staff, so established a role focused on doing just that. He also says that staff must come first, before students, as a well motivated staff is better for students.

Tomsett is clearly a very driven individual and the autobiographical elements of the book give you an appreciation of why. Thanks to his own working class background which Tomsett describes in the book, he is clearly morally driven as a teacher and school leader, with a full appreciation of the role of schools in social mobility. I think my favourite, mantra-like quote in the whole book is ‘a good education allows you to choose your path in life, and I don’t want one single student of mine to ever wonder what they’ve missed because they haven’t had a choice’ (p4). He goes on to say that to be any good at teaching it has to matter to you ‘in your chest’ (p36). This reminded me of the leaving speech of a colleague a few years ago who said that when you realise that your heart is no longer in the classroom, with the kids, then it is time to go because to stay would be unfair to the children.

John Tomsett has written a wonderful book in which he also discusses Dweck’s growth mindset, lesson planning and literacy. It is a wonderful read for anybody involved in education, far beyond current school leaders. Once I had read the book on a transatlantic flight, I leant it to a colleague in America who has worked as a school counsellor for over two decades. She found it an enlightened read, which had so much in common with the very best practice that she had heard about from the best school systems in the USA.

It is one of my favourite books on education. It will have a place on my bookshelf for the rest of my career, except when I am lending it to more colleagues!