The Joy of Quotation Marks

A colleague of experimental psychologist Steven Pinker once joked that verbs were ‘his little friends’ as Pinker believed that the way they are used can give genuine insight into the hidden machinery of cognitive processes.

You know who my ‘little friends’ are? Punctuation marks. I think that they can often give the game away. Take this doozy:

The best secondary schools trusted the incoming ‘levels’ achieved by pupils in primary school as a starting point . . .
–OFSTED, Maintaining Curiosity in Science, November 2013, p.42

The writer asks schools to trust things called “‘levels'”, which the writer has deliberately placed in quotation marks. H’mmm, interesting. Now why would they choose to do that?

By my count, there are five reasons to use quotation marks:

1. Reported speech — this instance doesn’t seem to fit that usage.

2. When coining a new word or phrase — again, this usage is unlikely in this instance.

3. When referring to a word as a word — again, it doesn’t seem to be the intention here.

4. To indicate the title of a book or article — this is definitely not the case here.

By a process of elimination, this seems to leave only one plausible reason for the writer to choose to use quotation marks:

       5.   To imply that the quoted word or phrase is dubious.

So let’s be clear here: the writer is asking schools to trust things called “‘levels'” that he or she apparently considers dubious enough to wrap in ironic quotation marks.

In this paragraph, Ofsted are urging schools to trust what Ofsted themselves (going by their use of punctuation, at least) consider untrustworthy. What are they going to ask us to do next? Square the circle? Cut down the largest tree in the forest with a herring?

Now, where else have I seen ‘levels’ in quotation marks recently? Oh yes . . .

As part of our reforms to the national curriculum , the current system of ‘levels’ used to report children’s attainment and progress will be removed.  It will not be replaced.
–DfE, June 2013

Let me summarise: in June 2013, the DfE tells us that ‘levels’ are gone, but then in November 2013, Ofsted admonishes us for not taking ‘levels’ seriously enough.

Sigh. Education: does thy right hand know what thy left hand doeth? Ever?

As a teacher, my way forward is crystal clear: it’s time to get busy cutting down the largest tree in the forest. Now, where did I put that herring . . .

Meet The New Ofsted, Same As The Old Ofsted

During CPD training in school, the team was handed a bulging A4 booklet. So bulging, in fact, that the staples looked to be experiencing the same kind of tectonic stresses as the waistband of my work trousers during one of my ‘heavy’ phases.

I am sure that all teachers have a been handed such a booklet at some point. It was a collection of Powerpoint slides — printed on that setting that produces a set of lines next to a shrunken facsimile of each slide. The lines are generously provided for the lucky attendee of external CPD to write “Notes”. (Somewhere in that corner of a higher dimension known as Tree Heaven, one tree turns to another tree and says “Bastards! They cut us down for that?”)

Handing us a copy of the Powerpoint, of course, serves a double purpose: (a) the external-CPDer can tick the “info. shared with dept.” box on the yellow CPD Impact Assessment Form; and (b) it keeps the team occupied for twenty minutes as we digest the slides. The document itself was no worse than many I’ve seen, but, sadly, no better either: Ofsted…Ten things to remember…Ofsted..five strategies to…more Ofsted…six sodding hats…yet more Ofsted…bloody Bloom’s bloody taxonomy…[epithets mine].

But I digress. The potted biography of the trainer was included: she was headteacher there and there and is an experienced Ofsted inspector. Now I’m sure she is a nice lady who means well and gets on with her colleagues and family and doesn’t kick her cat and takes good care of the hamster, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that this sort of thing is beyond a cottage industry now. Now it’s an industry — the school improvement industry.

Down with this sort of thing

It’s like we went to bed in the green, bucolic splendour of the 18th Century and woke up amidst the hideous, belching smokestacks of the Industrial Revolution.

And, for the life of me, I could not shake the feeling that some paragraphs written by George Orwell in the 1940s were particularily relevant:

The corruption that happens in England is seldom of that [conscious] kind. Nearly always it is more in the nature of self-deception, of the right hand not knowing what the left hand doeth. And being unconscious, it is limited . . . I do not suppose there is one paper in England that can be straightforwardly bribed with hard cash. In the France of the Third Republic all but a very few of the newspapers could notoriously be bought over the counter like so many pounds of cheese. Public life in England has never been openly scandalous. It has not reached the pitch of disintegration at which humbug can be dropped.

— George Orwell, England, Your England

I am sure that there is not a single Ofsted inspector in the country who can be bought across the counter for cold, hard cash like so many pounds of cheese. I even accept that a recent Ofsted rule change means that serving inspectors cannot run “what Ofsted want”-style courses anymore. (And about time too.)

But is it enough? Will there simply be a time-delayed revolving door between a stint as an inspector and joining the school improvement gravy train? I suspect that the niceties will continue to be observed, and that the fine old traditional British value of humbug will stop the development of situations that are openly scandalous.

As a colleague observed cynically: “The people writing this kind of thing are the exactly same kind of people who will be judging us, and can make or break our careers. Don’t do as they do, do as they say.”

I am and I will continue to do so. But, openly scandalous or not, I still think it stinks.

Why Mr Gradgrind, Thou Art Updated!

Why, Mr, Gradgrind, thou art updated!
Why, Mr, Gradgrind, thou art updated!

“NOW, what I want is, Skills. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Skills. Skills alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.” Mr Gradgrind paused for a moment.

“And when I say ‘teach’ what I really mean is ‘facilitate’. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Skills, sir!’ The scene was a plain vault of a school-room, decorated only with the multicoloured pyramid of Bloom’s Taxonomy on the far wall which the speaker’s square forefinger emphasized silently by pointing, in the approved “talk-less” neo-Gradgrindian manner.

“In this life, we want nothing but Higher Level Thinking, sir; nothing but Analysis, Evaluation and Creativity!” The speaker and the second grown person present both swept with their eyes the knots of little vessels then and there arranged in groupwork PowerTalk Circles (TM), ready to have imperial gallons of Conceptual Understanding facilitated into them until they were full to the brim, or at least until their personalised learning objectives could be self-actualized and triple cross-checked by peer assessment.

“Girl number twenty,” said Mr. Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger, “as a starter, please go to the flipchart and analyse and evaluate what the concept of ‘horse’ means in the 21st Century within the context of productive economic citizenship. Please make full use of all the colours available to delineate your thought-clusters. You have two minutes.” Sissy Jupe blushed nervously but gamely walked over to the flipchart stand. Mr Gradgrind started a countdown timer on the interactive whiteboard.

The pips sounded and Sissy stepped away from the flipchart. She had drawn a picture of a horse. It was actually quite a good picture although it was wearing a hat and smiling in a decidedly unhorselike way. She had written “Dobbin is a quadruped” in very neat handwriting at the bottom.

Mr Gradgrind refrained from commenting with some difficulty. “Suggestions?”

A hand went up. “She should use the word ‘because’ in every sentence to encourage higher level thinking skills?”

“Yes, but . . .” conceded Mr Gradgrind , walking over the flipchart and putting a big red circle around the word quadruped. “More suggestions? Yes, Bitzer?”

“The sentence containing the word quadruped is a statement of a merely factual nature, sir,” said Bitzer, pulling a sour face as the word ‘factual’ left his mouth.

“Precisely!” roared Gradgrind . He turned towards the class. “And why should we bother to remember things when–”

“–we can look it up on Google!” chorused the class. Poor Sissy Jupe looked crestfallen.

“Bitzer, show us how its done.” The whey-faced lad tapped away on his iPad.

“Sir, horses are not quadrupeds! It says here on Wikipedia that they’ve got five legs.”

“One cannot always trust Wikipedia, boy!”

“The article was updated not seven and a half minutes ago by a contributor called Professor LOLZ, sir!”

Gradgrind gave Sissy Jupe a significant look. “Analysis, Evaluation and Creativity — that’s how its done! Consider: (1) the article is recent and up-to-date; (2) it’s written by an academic; and (3) Lolz sounds a bit German and they are a jolly efficient nation with an education system that is higher in the PISA rankings than ours! QED. Well done there, Bitzer!”

Sissy Jupe looked puzzled.”But . . . horsies have four legs, don’t they?”

Gradgrind warmed to one of his favourite themes: “In the fuddy-duddy old twentieth century, perhaps horsies did have four legs. But in the twenty-first century, are you going to rely on what your brain tells you or what the internet says? Shift happens. There’s going to be a lot of Chinese and Indian people about, some of them quite clever. Big numbers. Lots of new words and job titles with the word digital in them. Twenty-first century skills, sort of thing. Shift happens..”

Gradgrind became uncomfortably aware that his precis wasn’t having the same impact as the ‘Shift happens’ Youtube video itself usually did. “Consider, young Sissy,” he said, changing tack, “the skills of 21st century equestrianism are likely to be vastly different from the skills of 20th century equestrianism. If you had learned to ride a twentieth century horse, would you still be able to ride a twenty-first century horse?”

“Erm . . . yes?” offered Sissy, hesitantly.

“Of course not! You see, that’s why we’re not teaching you any stuff that might change in the near- to medium-term future, because that would be silly, wouldn’t it? Instead, we’re teaching you skills that will last a lifetime, like using internet browsers and how to use keyboard shortcuts on proprietary software to cut-and-paste. Because those skills will NEVER become obsolete, you mark my words!”

The second adult in the room, the normal class teacher, stepped forward, shaking his head in admiration. Speechlessly, he removed his mortar board and handed it over to Mr Gradgrind . Mr Gradgrind acknowledged the gesture with a grave and courteous inclination of the head, before throwing that tired old symbol of traditional teaching into the nearest wastebasket.

He drew two baseball caps from his pocket — they both had the words ‘Lead Learner’ embroidered upon them — and both of them reverently donned them. From somewhere, the opening bars of Mr Boombastic blared as they got on with chillin’ wid da kidz.

Sissy Jupe sighed and opened her book and started reading quietly: it had been a close run thing, but just for a minute there it had seemed as if someone was actually going to teach her something…

The Twelve Physics Pracs of Gove (Part Two)

A true-devoted pilgrim is not weary
To measure kingdoms with his feeble steps

–William Shakespeare, The Two Gentlemen of Verona


A picture [of reality]  . . .  is laid against reality like a measure  . . .   Only the end-points of the graduating lines actually touch the object that is to be measured  . . .   These correlations are, as it were, the feelers of the picture’s elements, with which the picture touches reality.

–Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus 2.141-2.1515


What they say of disc jockeys is also true of teachers: that someone, somewhere will remember some of your words forever; or, at least, for the duration of their lifetime. The downside is, of course, that you never know which of your words are going to be remembered. The wittily-crafted, near-Wildean aphorism pregnant with socratic wisdom — probably not. The unintentionally hilarious malapropism that makes you sound like a complete plonker — almost certainly.

To this day, I still remember Dr Prys’ sharp and appropriate response to a flippant comment (possibly from the callow 6th form me) about whether the scientific constants listed in the data book were truly trustworthy: “Look,” he said, “people have dedicated their whole lives to measuring just one of these numbers to one extra decimal place!” True devoted pilgrims indeed, mapping out the Universe step by tiny step, measurement by measurement.

I have written before on what I consider to be the huge importance of practical work in Physics education. Without hands-on experience of the hard work involved in the process of precise measurement, I do not believe that students can fully appreciate the magnificent achievement of the scientific enterprise: in essence, measurement is how scientific theories “touch” reality.

I am encouraged that parts of this view seem to be shared by the writers of the Subject Content guidance. (All hail our Govean apparatchik overlords!)

Of course, this has to be balanced with the acknowledgement that (as I understand it at least) teacher-assessed practical work will no longer count towards a student’s final exam grade. Many are concerned that this is actually a downgrading of the importance of practicals in Science and thus a backward step.

Sadly, they may turn out to be right: “We have to have this equipment for the practical/controlled assessment!” will no longer be a password for unlocking extra funding from recalcitrant SLTs (and from the exam budget too — double win!)

And, undoubtedly, some “teach-to-the-test” schools will quietly mothball their lab equipment (except for the showy stuff — like the telescope that no-one knows how to use — that they bring out for prospective pupil tours).

That would be sad, and although the DfE have, to be fair, nailed their pro-practical colours to the mast, we all know that the dreaded Law of Unintended Consequences may have the last laugh.

I would say it all depends on how the new A levels are actually put together. I will be attending some “launch events” in the near future. I will blog on whether I think we can expect an Apollo 11 or an Apollo 13 at that time.

In the meantime, I will be setting practicals galore as usual, as I’m old-fashioned enough to think that they give a lovely baroque feel to a scheme of work…

Look at me, I design coastlines, I got an award for Norway. Where’s the sense in that? None that I’ve been able to make out. I’ve been doing fiords all my life, for a fleeting moment they become fashionable and I get a major award. In this replacement Earth we’re building they’ve given me Africa to do, and of course, I’m doing it will all fjords again, because I happen to like them. And I’m old fashioned enough to think that they give a lovely baroque feel to a continent. And they tell me it’s not equatorial enough…
–Slartibartfast, from The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams