The Gift of Screws

Essential oils are wrung:
The attar from the rose
Is not expressed by suns alone,
It is the gift of screws.

— Emily Dickinson, Time and Eternity XXV

It’s a memorable image that Dickinson presents: that the delightful, fragrant oil of attar does not spontaneously waft or pour from a rose, but rather it must be wrung from the petals using the force of a screw press.

Screw Press

In other words, this beautiful, natural, organic fragrance is the gift of screws.

What prompted me to recall these lines? Firstly, Leonard James’ recent excellent blogpost “Kayleigh Wants To Do Well“:

So ‘Kayleigh wants to do well’? Show me a child who doesn’t want to do well! If one accepts that the overwhelming majority of children want to do well then the vapidity of the questioning becomes clear. Extracting a meaningful dialogue from an underachieving child begins with putting their desire to achieve to one side and focusing on whether the child wants to put in the effort required to make it happen. Like many an adult who wants be thinner but doesn’t want to lay off the cake, Kayleigh wants a string of good grades without making the sacrifices required to achieve them.

This resonates with my own experience with some students: “Oh. so you do want to do well? Then do the bloody work then!” (Sorry, I’m going through that time of year that I refer to as “Coursework Hell” at the moment, so I might be on a tiny little bit of a short fuse.)

Secondly, let’s not forget that learning, proper learning mind you, is bloody hard work (and I make no apology for quoting this line yet again, since it so neatly crystallises and encapsulates what I think is the single most important lesson of my two decades in teaching) :

Learning happens when people have to think hard.

Professor Robert Coe

Learning, real learning, is also the gift of screws.

The Physicist’s Eulogy

“You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the Principle of Conservation of Energy, so that they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the First Law of Thermodynamics: that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every joule of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this universe. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid the energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.

“And at one point you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your broken-hearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair — those hundreds of trillions of particles — have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your spouse rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let him know that the photons that bounced from you and that were gathered in the particle detectors that are his eyes, that those photons have created within his brain constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.

“And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as she says it. And she will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.

“And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope that your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they will be comforted to know that your energy is still around.

“Because, according to both the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics, not one bit of you is gone: you’re just less orderly.”

Original author unknown. Quoted by ‘WelshmanEC2’ in The Guardian [accessed 14/2/14].  NB: some minor stylistic amendments made in the version presented here.

Update: the original author is Aaron Freeman who performed it on NPR Radio in 2005. Original transcript here. Audio of performance (with added slideshow) here.

The Myth of Pedagogy

God help me, but I really enjoy reading edu-blogs: whether they contain tips, opinions, polemical rants or genuine philosophical analysis, they are all grist to my reading mill.

However, practically all the blogs that I have read buy into what I think of as the Great Myth of Pedagogy. In fact, I think all teachers (including myself) buy into it to a greater or lesser degree. Although, on reflection, perhaps members of SLT buy into it more than most.

What is this myth? It is based on the fallacy of magical thinking:  as human beings, we all too often make causal connections or assume correlations between two events based on what is essentially superstition, rather than logic, evidence or reason.

“11Sc5 met their GCSE target grades because of the extra targeted intervention that I instigated.”

“Erm…you do know that only 3 of them ever turned up. And they were the ones that actually didn’t need to turn up.”

“Targeted, proactive intervention. It’s the way forward!”

“So — you’ll actually be doing the targeted, proactive intervention every day after school next term, then?”

“No, of course not. I can’t waste time standing in front of a whiteboard reading powerpoint slides at students! I’ll be too busy coming up with innovations like T.P.I. — targeted, proactive intervention!”

“Oh. Goody.”

As a teacher, I believe that what I do in the classroom makes a difference. I wouldn’t stay in the classroom if I didn’t believe that. However, what I am much less certain of is what exactly it is that I am doing that is actually making a difference.

Many years ago, a short story by the much underrated SF author Robert Sheckley had a profound influence on me. The story was called “Pas de Trois of the Chef and the Waiter and the Customer”. In this masterful story (which probably doesn’t sit easily in the SF genre), three narrators describe what happened in an Indonesian restaurant on a Mediterranean island some years ago.

The Chef seeks absolution for addicting the Customer to his uncommonly delicious rijstaffel dishes and precipitating the man’s decline into obesity and illness. The Waiter is racked with guilt because he used jazz music to hypnotise the Customer into overeating: he played an artfully chosen sequence of classic jazz records over the restaurant loudspeakers and observed the customer eating in time to the music. Finally, the Customer confesses that he harboured a mad passion for the young Waiter and kept eating at the restaurant because he was convinced that the Waiter was shamelessly flirting with him.

The basic shape of the story is the same according to each of the narrators; however, none of them agree on salient details such as the others’ names, nationalities or motivations. More poignantly, at the climax of the story when the Customer walks out of the restaurant for the last time, each of the characters remembers an entirely different fervidly overwrought final conversation.

Author Michel Faber (another Sheckley aficionado) writes that the message of “Pas de Trois of the Customer and the Waiter and the Customer”  is

that people inhabit different realities. By this I don’t mean that people differ in their ability to perceive the objective reality of the lives they share with others. I mean that each of us tends to live in an alternate universe, which may bear only the most incidental relationship to the universe inhabited by the next person.

There are undoubtedly some objective realities in the classroom that teacher, observer and students would agree on. But what are they? I am not sure.

The room the lesson was held in: yes. The subject matter of the lesson: probably. The absence or presence of serious misbehaviour (e.g. throwing chairs, fighting): yes. Whether the teacher was confident and knowledgeable about the lesson content: yes, probably. Whether the teacher chose the most effective activities to teach the material: no. Whether all of the students were engaged all the time: no, probably.

I hope you see my point. But where does this leave us?

My answer is: we are no worse off than before, and we are probably better off in that we have acknowledged our ignorance and we are not pretending to knowledge that we do not possess, and we are not indulging in “educational voodoo” or magical, wishful thinking.

Now I am not suggesting that this state of affairs cannot change. As more scientific research is done (perhaps along the lines of the double-blind trials or further refinements in neuroscience) we will build up more reliable knowledge of what really works in the classroom.

In the meantime, I believe that we are essentially in the “pre-scientific” age of the classroom. We are like blacksmiths before the advent of the science of metallurgy. We have a range of traditional techniques and rules of thumb that work very effectively, but we are not always sure exactly why or how they work, at least in a scientific sense. We simply know that these kinds of techniques have worked in the past. Blacksmiths knew that if they hammered a piece of iron a lot it would become harder; teachers know that “learning happens when people have to think hard” (Prof. Robert Coe‘s Simple Theory of Learning).

That’s my purpose as a teacher: to make students think really hard about stuff. By whatever means necessary.

An old proverb suggests that “It is better to light a candle than complain about the dark”. And so it is. However, the first indispensable step is to say: “Hey, is it just me or is it really dark in here?” and cautiously begin feeling your way forward.

George Eliot and the Internet

George Eliot (penname of Mary Anne Evans, 1819-1880): did she predict the rise of the Internet?
George Eliot (penname of Mary Anne Evans, 1819-1880): did she predict the rise of the Internet?

As I wandered around a small shopping mall today, I observed a large number of people interacting intently with their smartphones. Nothing ground breaking there, you might say, but it called to mind a passage I’d read in George Eliot’s Essays (which is a treasure trove of exquisite writing of which I was completely unaware until a few days ago):

In fact, the evident tendency of things to contract personal communication within the narrowest limits makes us tremble lest some further development of the electric telegraph should reduce us to a society of mutes, or to a sort of insects communicating by ingenious antenna of our own invention.

George Eliot, “Woman in France: Madame de Sable”, The Essays of George Eliot

The internet is a further development of the electric telegraph. Mobile phone technology can certainly be likened to “ingenious antenna of our own invention”. Perhaps we will grow more insect-like as we incorporate the technology more and more into our physical structure. I suspect that “Google Glass” is only the beginning of the process.

File:Google Glass Explorer Edition.jpeg
Google Glass is a wearable computer with an optical head-mounted display (OHMD) that is being developed by Google in the Project Glass research and development project. (Wikipedia).

But is this and similar technology in the process of reducing us to a society of mutes?

Yes and no. In my experience, digital communication can certainly help to spark conversation of the old-fashioned, face-to-face kind.

However, as my wife has frequently observed–acerbically, but with love, as only she can(!)–I am all too ready to crawl into my digital man-cave of an evening. I can’t help but be aware that I am also one of those people who often prefers to email or text rather than make an actual person-to-person phone call. And how does being a blog-writer fit into this pattern? Pass over those electronic antenna of our own invention, Alice.

I don’t think that I’m a particularly unsociable person, but it makes me think. Selective verbal mutism: is this the wave of the future?

T. S. Eliot predicted in The Hollow Men that

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

I don’t think he was quite as prescient as the other Eliot. Perhaps it should read:

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a Tweet.

And a Merry Christmas to one and all!

A Slice of Humble PISA: Back to Basics For Us All…?

Over a period of two or three years the scholarship boys were crammed with learning as cynically as a goose is crammed for Christmas. And with what learning!  . . . At St Cyprian’s the whole process was frankly a preparation for a sort of confidence trick. Your job was to learn exactly those things that would give an examiner the impression that you knew more than you did know, and as far as possible to avoid burdening your brain with anything else.

— George Orwell,  Such, Such Were The Joys [emphasis added]

Perhaps enough ink and bile have been spilled and projected over the recent PISA ranking that you may feel that no more needs to be said. Perhaps you are correct. However, this post is only tangentially addressed towards this.

In this post, I want to mention a nagging worry that has been growing in my mind for a number of years concerning science education in the UK. The feeling I have is that we are not getting the fundamental basics of science education correct.

At times, I feel that we are inflicting a St Cyprian-style (so memorably described by George Orwell in the quote above) of science education on the majority of students. Now, I am not approaching this from the angle of “things-were-so-much-better-in-the-old-days-before-all-this-grade-inflation-malarkey”. Rather, I am going to lay out some items of concern that I have.

Item the first: I was recently reminded of an old (1984) textbook called A First Physics Course by R. B. Arnold. I remember I had a class set of these in my very first classroom. It was written as a guide for Y7-9 students and was crammed full of neat experiments. For example, the section on magnetism showed how to magnetise a needle to make a compass (not as easy as you might think — how can you make sure the north seeking pole is at the pointy end?) and then a bunch of other enjoyable experiments (well, I enjoyed them anyway).

Compare this with a more recent textbook: say, the recent Collins KS3 scheme. The material covered is similar in many ways, and the design and full-colour illustrations are attractive — however, the emphasis on hands-on practical experience is entirely gone. Instead, the students are expected to extract information from diagrams, video clips and text rather than getting a chance to experience the phenomena for themselves. (I am not suggesting that the Collins scheme is a particularly bad example, by the way, rather I am using it as a typical example of modern educational publishing.)

I cannot help but feel that without the vital hands-on experience of actually using real magnets in a variety of situations (not just the 2-like-poles-repel practical suggested in the modern textbook) then students are merely getting a St Cyprian-style cramming session rather than a true learning experience. I cannot help but feel that many of the textbooks and — dread words! — revision guides that we use nowadays cater for a wide but superficial acquaintance with scientific knowledge: “learn exactly those things that would give the examiner the impression that you knew more than you did know.

Item the second: look up the word density in the Collins scheme, or most other KS3 schemes for that matter and you get . . . zilch, zero, nada, nothing. This is sad, because I think the concept of density is an excellent example of how we can process physical measurements to get a surprisingly useful quantity.

The class measures the mass of 100 cubic centimetres of water and then divide the mass by the volume to find the density, the mass per cubic centimetre. Big deal. What can they do with that? The answer — everything. Can we weigh the world’s oceans? Sure, if we know the volume: mass = density x volume. Can we estimate the mass of a human head (preferably without removing it from its owner)? Sure: find the mass of a human being (easy) and the volume (tricky but not impossible), calculate the average density of a human being, then measure the volume of  the head  (again tricky but can be done with a bucket of water, a towel and a show-off volunteer) and use the mass = density x volume equation.

Students get concrete, real world experience of mathematical manipulation of a quantity that can be felt (compare the weight of 1 cubic centimetre of lead with 1 cubic centimetre of wood)  and yet is essentially an abstract quantity: a window on a wider world, so to speak. Who could ask for anything more?

Item the third: someone, somewhere who really, truly should know better thinks that the art of precise measurement is trivial. To the best of my knowledge, there is no KS3 or KS4 course that currently gives this noble but neglected skill its due acknowledgement. I despair of A-level students who cannot use a metre rule to produce simple readings of length of sufficient precision without intensive coaching. (“Avoid parallax error, read to the nearest millimetre, not the nearest cm” and so on). It’s also quite a laugh watching students use measuring cylinders too — although if you want a real belly laugh try asking them to adjust a simple laboratory stand and clamp: generally speaking, students will tighten and loosen the screws at random.

Digital natives? Perhaps. Mechanical idiots? Definitely.

I suspect that at the root of it is the British class system: the thinkers are generally regarded as superior to the do-ers, and all too often practical skills are classified as ‘merely’ mechanical and menial, and not worthy of the attention of a true professional.

Sadly, the truth is that opinions such as this  will produce dilettantes rather than rounded, competent professionals. And even more sadly, I believe that the dilettantes have taken over the asylum…

To learn a mystic formula for answering questions is very bad. The book has some others: “gravity makes it fall;” “the soles of your shoes wear out because of friction.” Shoe leather wears out because it rubs against the sidewalk and the little notches and bumps on the sidewalk grab pieces and pull them off. To simply say it is because of friction, is sad, because it’s not science.

— Richard Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (1990), p.180

Through Other Eyes

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

–William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

Yet another whiny email from a Year 12 student. He requests a special selection of past paper questions on a particular topic. My answer? “Go to the flipping website that I have so laboriously set up for your benefit which has resources galore of that particular ilk and more, as well as digital bells and whistles, you clod!”

I did express the above sentiments somewhat more diplomatically in the email. And, to be honest, I was glad to get even that whiny missive: I feel we might be on the verge of that tipping point where the Year 12s stop being passive GCSE Spongebobs and become a little more independent, a little more grown up, a little more like proper 6th form students. Maybe. Just maybe. It might be a sign. I loved it when I heard him say to the other students in the class that “there’s a lot of good stuff on the website.”

Now I know that the student concerned had seen the website previously. He had even complimented me on it. But he obviously hadn’t seen it properly. And, strangely enough, it started me thinking about how we do not always see the world as others see it.

To my mind, one the finest descriptions and “thought experiments” on this topic comes from a short story by the incomparable R. A. Lafferty:

“It may be that I am the only one who sees the sky black at night and the stars white,” he said to himself, “and everyone else sees the sky white and the stars shining black. And I say the sky is black, and they say the sky is black; but when they say black they mean white.”
— R. A. Lafferty, Through Other Eyes, “Nine Hundred Grandmothers and other stories”

Do we genuinely ever see the world as others see it? The truth is — ultimately at least — we don’t rightly know.

Charles Cogsworth, the scientist in R. A. Lafferty’s short story, invents a machine called the Cerebral Scanner which literally allows its user to see out through other people’s eyes, and to truly see the world as others see it.

Charles makes the mistake of using the Scanner to look out through the eyes of his girlfriend, Valery. He is horrified: “she hears sounds that I thought nobody could ever hear. Do you know what worms sound like inside the earth? They’re devilish, and she would writhe and eat dirt with them.”

Valery also uses the Cerebral Scanner to look out through the eyes of Charles, and is equally disturbed. She confronts the hapless Charles:

“You can look at a hill and your heart doesn’t even skip a beat. You don’t even tingle when you walk over a field.”

“You see grass like clumps of snakes.”

“That’s better than not even seeing it alive.”

“You see rocks like big spiders.”

“That’s better than just seeing them like rocks. I love snakes and spiders. You can watch a bird fly by and not even hear the stuff gurgling in its stomach. How can you be so dead? And I always liked you so much. But I didn’t know you were dead like that.”

“How can one love snakes and spiders?”

“How can one not love anything? It’s even hard not to love you, even if you don’t have any blood in you. By the way, what gave you the idea that blood was that dumb colour? Don’t you even know that blood is red?

“ I see it red.”

“You don’t see it red. You just call it red. That silly colour isn’t red. What I call red is red.”

And he knew that she was right.

–R. A. Lafferty, Through Other Eyes

The phrase that has stayed with me over all the years since I first read this story as a callow youth is Valery’s description of what is, to her, Charles’ unforgivable deadness to the wonders of the world: “You can watch a bird fly by and not even hear the stuff gurgling in its stomach.

That is the experience of Physics that I want to communicate to my students. I want them to look at the universe and hear the stuff gurgling in its stomach. I want them to be able to experience their understanding, not just on an intellectual level, but also on a visceral level. This, to my mind, is what makes studying Physics fun.

Do I always succeed? Absolutely not. Do I sometimes succeed? Maybe, sometimes.

Do I have fun in classroom? A significant part of the time, yes. This is why I wanted to become a teacher. This is why I have stayed a teacher. And what about the other rubbish that is constantly being foisted on us?

Well, just for now, I think I’ll let it all go hang. I’ll worry about that on Monday.

National Curriculum Levels: worth keeping?

There is a tide in the affairs of men, or so opined Brutus in Julius Caesar.

Likewise, there is something like a tide in the edu-blogosphere, or at least a prevailing wind. And the prevailing wind right now seems to blowing against the idea of National Curriculum levels (try Joe, Daisy or Keven for their wiser, more coherent thoughts on this issue.)

But here’s the thing: I’ve always quite liked the idea of levels.

There. I’ve said it. Now I feel like Captain Rum in Blackadder:

Aaaaaar! All them other scurvy-bloggers be sayin’ be rid of NC levels! But I says…

Edmund: Look, there’s no need to panic. Someone in the crew will know how to steer this thing.

Rum: The crew, milord?

Edmund: Yes, the crew.

Rum: What crew?

Edmund: I was under the impression that it was common maritime practice for a ship to have a crew.

Rum: Opinion is divided on the subject.

Edmund: Oh, really?

Rum: Yahs. All the other captains say it is; I say it isn’t.

Blackadder II, Episode 3: Potato

Now this is not to say that some schools did some mighty strange things with levels and sub-levels. Like insisting that Key Stage 3 students should progress by two sub-levels per year. And woe betide any teacher that did not achieve this minimal standard of progression, or — horror of horrors! — reported that a student had made negative progress. How dare one cause even the minutest blip on our glorious straight lines on our graphs (drawn in Excel! with colour coding!) of student progression!

And so, for a quiet life, some rascally teachers may have looked at last year’s level, added two sub-levels to it, and entered that.

And, lo, it came to pass that everybody was happy: “Yea, we have numbers, and numbers are scientific. Gosh, some of us even use numbers and letters, which is beyond scientific: I mean, it’s more like advanced cognitive calculus of your learning soul, right? And Ofsted want to see progress over time. Which is shown by our graphs. In Excel. With colour coding. A glorious and undeviating straight line. For every single student. God, we are so good, aren’t we? Outstanding, even.”

That said, I am still in favour of keeping a form of assessment level. No, not the hyperformal “Oh-they’ve-got-to-sit-both-SATS-papers-in-order-to-get-a-reliable-level-and-sublevel” type of level.

What I have got in mind is an approach that was introduced to me many, many moons ago. It was called the CONTROL WORD approach to levels (ring any bells for anyone else yet?)

Level 3: DESCRIBES cause and effect using everyday language (e.g. “The wind blew the door shut”)

Level 4: Uses scientific TERMINOLOGY (e.g. “A force is a push or a pull.”)

Level 5: EXPLAINS cause and effect using scientific terminology (e.g. “The boat slowed because of the drag force of the water.”)

Level 6: Explain cause and effect using an ABSTRACT concept (e.g. “The bulb became dimmer because the resistance of the circuit increased.”)

Level 7: Uses a scientific MODEL to explain a phenomenon (e.g. “The wire has resistance because the freely moving electrons collide with the atoms of the wire and lose energy.”)

Level 8: Links PHENOMENA using a sophisticated model [or models] (e.g. “The atoms vibrate with greater amplitude at higher temperatures. This means that the freely moving electrons will collide more frequently with them. Thus the resistance of the wire increases with temperature.”)

The sublevels were allocated as follows:

(c) can do this with coaching or with highly structured prompts

(b) can usually do this with some prompting or coaching

(a) can do this relied on to do this independently

I’ve always secretly applied this assessment schema when asked for NC levels, and my rule-of-thumb-pulled-out-of-thin-air level has usually been at least comparable with “two-sodding-SATS-papers-to-bloody-well-mark-just-to-generate-one-number-and-one-stupid-letter approach”, or the T.S.S.P.T.B.W.M.J.T.G.O.N.A.O.S.L Approach, as an educational consultant might call it.

Anyhow, now my secret is out. Please feel free to pile on and criticise.

I shall sign off with what I think is an appropriate quotation from Wittgenstein:

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)

He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.54

Me and My PGCE


Fifty-two years,
most of them taken in
growing or in the
illusion of it

— R. S. Thomas, Selected Poems 1946-1968

Some recent blogs on PGCEsQTS and initial teacher training led me to reflect on the practicalities of how I became a teacher.

Generally speaking, it takes two years to become a qualified teacher, by whichever route you choose (PGCE + QTS, Teach First or Schools Direct). Opinions vary as to how long it will take you to become a good teacher, although it is generally agreed that this is not an automatic process. (‘Good’ according to whom is a question I will leave to one side for this post.)

From my own experience, I would venture to make the risky generalisation that good teachers are not born, they are not made (in the sense of being manufactured on an assembly line); rather, good teachers are grown.

I entered the profession some 20+ years ago via the near-universal (at the time) PGCE route. To be honest, I wasn’t driven by any sense of vocation aside from a hazy idea that another year of uni would be kind of nice (ooh – and a bursary too, thank you so much). As I recall, the course had two school placements: a short one (of two weeks) and a long one (of — wait for it — six weeks).

The rest of the time was passed pleasantly on campus, sometimes attending lectures on educational theory and philosophy, and other times having useful (and sometimes not-so-useful) small class tutorials on the stuff of actual Physics teaching. I regret to say that I was often more focused on drama society productions and going to the pub than on my studies and placements.

Nevertheless, I passed. I don’t know how, but I passed. And I managed (again, God knows how) to get my first job. It was as a Physics teacher at a small rural comprehensive. I won’t say in which part of the UK, except that there were so many Mr Jones’s that we had to be distinguished by referencing our teaching subject. I was “Mr Jones Physics”.

And I was rubbish. I couldn’t control a class to save my life, my planning was abysmal (when I actually did any), and I spent most of each lesson shouting at students (well, at least all that drama society stuff was put to some use after all) in increasingly desperate attempts to get them to copy stuff off the blackboard (one of those old style ones where the writing surface was a looped belt that you used chalk to write on). Without a doubt, the present-day me would have fired the then-me without a second thought.

Surprisingly, I still made it through my probationary year (the prehistoric version of QTS), although with my ears ringing with a stern admonition to mark my students’ books more often.

What saved me? An inspirational Head of Science who — wonder of wonders — saw some teaching potential in me. He unselfishly gave me the lion’s share of A-level Physics teaching. Gradually, in the relative calm of an A-level class, I learned how to communicate my knowledge of Physics to students in a useful way. I learned how to talk with rather than at or down to students. I learned how to control a class using the maxim “It’s not the severity of a sanction that matters, it’s the certainty.” And, sometime near the beginning of my second year of teaching I remember a lesson with a Y10 group when I had the shocking thought “Hey, I’m enjoying this!” I became confident enough to write and develop my own teaching resources. I started getting positive feedback from students. I learned techniques and strategies to help students across the ability range. And . . . well, I was hooked.

So: fast-forward to today. Am I a good teacher? Hell, yes, I think so. A-level Physics take-up at my school has never been so healthy. Results are above the school average and improving. Ex-students occasionally write to me saying how much they enjoyed learning in my classes. A student gets up at the end of the final lesson before the exams to shake my hand and say “Thanks for being a great Physics teacher!” A young woman says that she persevered to the end of A2 Physics simply because “It’s so rare to a teacher who is so passionate about his subject.” (PS — I’m not making any of this stuff up, honest; blowing my own trumpet does not come easily to me, but I think I need this to give some perspective on what follows. Plus I need to counter some of the steady drip-drip-drip of SLT negativity.)

The point is: it wasn’t the PGCE or QTS* process per se that made me into a good teacher. It was time, good guidance and inspiring examples from colleagues and friends and — most importantly of all — learning that I, myself, wanted to do this well and putting the hours into thinking about teaching, planning lessons, developing teaching sequences and ways of communicating concepts and — perhaps most importantly of all — learning about how important it is to know about children’s possible misconceptions in order to effectively teach (thank you, Rosalind Driver and her colleagues for this research).

So if PGCE and QTS-equivalent did not, by my own admission, turn me into a good teacher, should they be dispensed with?

Absolutely not. I believe that QTS is the “Goons’ Cambridge tie” (see below) of the teaching profession. It is the minimum standard. It is the line drawn in the sand: to be a teacher you have to do this and this and this*. And to an extent, anybody who wants it can get it (assuming they do the necessary work, of course). It is the necessary first step.

So far, I have not heard an argument that convinces me that QTS is a major obstacle to outside experts entering the classroom. As far as I can tell, all such arguments are obfuscatory justifications for cost cutting by way of employing temporary or transient staff.

Teaching looks easy but is actually much harder than it looks. Unless a person is willing to “buy the tie”, so to speak, I do not think they will develop the classroom expertise that students need and (usually) respond so warmly to.

Do take a seat with the other applicants.

Thank you. I sat down next to a man wearing a brass deerstalker, white cricket boots, and a shredded cardboard wig.



Don’t tell me you’re applying for the post of announcer?

Oh, yeah! And I’ll get it too, you’ll see! I’m wearing a Cambridge tie!

You? You were at Cambridge?


What were you doing there?

Buying a tie.

The Goon Show, “The Greenslade Story”

* Ridiculously oversimplified, I know. My apologies to all those who have had to assemble multiple ringbinders of evidence for the QTS standards.

Knowledge vs. Skills: Big-endians vs. Little-endians?

Gulliver’s Travels contains the memorable episode where two peoples are engaged in a long war over which end of a boiled egg to break first, the war of the Big-endians vs. the Little-endians:

[T]wo mighty powers have … been engaged in a most obstinate war for six-and-thirty moons past. It began upon the following occasion….the emperor … commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs. The people so highly resented this law, that our histories tell us, there have been six rebellions raised on that account; wherein one emperor lost his life, and another his crown. … It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end. Many hundred large volumes have been published upon this controversy: but the books of the Big-endians have been long forbidden, and the whole party rendered incapable by law of holding employments.

I suggest that the current knowledge versus skills debate is, at its heart, no more than a Big-endian versus Little-endian debate.

I started thinking about these issues after reading Daisy Christodoulou’s recent blogpost. I think I agree with two of the main points that she put forward: that (1) the so-called “knowledge vs. skills” is a false dichotomy; and (2)

people who say that it’s a false dichotomy go on to make what I think is a further misconception. They say – ‘we should teach both’ or that ‘we should have a balance – let’s make sure we don’t get too knowledge heavy/too skills heavy’ … The other semantic problem this gives rise to is that when I talk about teaching knowledge, a lot of people worry that I am not concerned about skills. I am absolutely concerned with skills. The end point of education should be to produce skilled individuals. My point is that the best way to achieve that aim is not to teach skills; it’s to teach knowledge.

I would perhaps go a little further still. Although the word skill and the word knowledge are useful in many contexts to express nuances of meaning (e.g. he is a skilled footballer as compared with he is knowledgeable about football), I am not sure that they actually refer to different cognitive realities.

When a person makes a claim to knowledge, I believe that they are claiming some form of demonstrable ability. If the Major-General from The Pirates of Penzance says that “I know the kings of England” then we are quite within our rights to say, “Go on, then, name them.” If the Major-General can go on to list the kings of England then we might conclude “Yep, he really does know them.”

I believe that the salient point is that a claim to knowledge is not assessed by reference to any sort of brain- or cognitive-state, but rather to the successful demonstration of an ability to do something. As a consequence, I think that the opposition of skills and knowledge is not only unhelpful and a false dichotomy, as Christodoulou points out, but is actually something worse.

I think that those who seek to distinguish between skills and knowledge on a fundamental level are relying on a false model of how the human mind works. I believe that it is a mistake to think of the mind as a blank slate onto which facts or knowledge are written on the brain, like sentences on a page. This model suggest that intelligent actions consist of interpreting these sentences (howsoever encoded in the brain) and changing and applying them to the real world. In other words, gaining knowledge is no big deal since the propositions that encode them just sit there in the brain until an active intellectual agent grabs them and uses them.

Champions of the [intellectualist] legend are apt to try and re-assimilate knowing how to knowing that by arguing that intelligent performance involve the observance of rules, or the application of criteria. It therefore follows that the operation which is characterized as intelligent must be preceded by an intellectual acknowledgement of these rules or criteria.

Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (1949), pp.29-30

To put it bluntly, those who argue that there is a fundamental distinction between skills (knowing how, in Ryle’s phrasing) and knowledge (knowing that) are succumbing to the ‘intellectualist legend’.

… the absurd assumption made by the intellectualist legend is this, that a performance of any sort inherits all its title to intelligence from some anterior internal operation of planning what to do … It is also notoriously possible for us to plan shrewdly and perform stupidly, i.e. to flout our precepts in our practice. By the original argument, therefore, our intellectual planning process must inherit its title to shrewdness from yet another interior process of planning to plan, and this process could in its turn be silly or shrewd. The regress is infinite, and this reduces to absurdity the theory that for an operation to be intelligent it must be steered by a prior intellectual operation … When I do something intelligently, i.e. thinking what I am doing, I am doing one thing and not two.

Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (1949) p.32 [emphasis mine]

The point argued by Ryle is that a dichotomy between so-called skills and knowledge presupposes some form of homunculus reading sentences from the book of the brain and deciding how, when and where to put them into action. That model of the mind leads to an infinite regress: how does the homunculus make up its mind? Does it have an even smaller homunculus deciding on its course of action, and that homunculus have an even smaller homunculus, and so on…?

In short, I am suggesting that the thoughtful teacher regard the entire knowledge vs. skills debate as a ‘category-mistake’ based on an old and discredited model of the operation of mind.

This is not to say that word skill is to be outlawed. It is a useful word that I will continue to use for appropriate emphasis and nuance. What I hope is that I will have persuaded other teachers to avoid thinking of knowledge and skill as two completely separate entities that are in opposition to each other, but rather as different ‘ends’ of the same ‘egg’ — the golden egg of learning, if you will.

I will leave the last word to Jonathan Swift:

During the course of these troubles, the emperors of Blefusca … accusing us of making a schism in religion, by offending against a fundamental doctrine of our great prophet Lustrog, in the fifty-fourth chapter of the Blundecral (which is their Alcoran). This, however, is thought to be a mere strain upon the text; for the words are these: ‘that all true believers break their eggs at the convenient end.’ And which is the convenient end, seems, in my humble opinion to be left to every man’s conscience.

Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels [my emphasis]

A Letter from Talleyrand: ‘Some Thoughts on Education and Political Priorities’ by Dominic Cummings, aged 39¾

Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings
If Michael Gove can be likened to Napoleon, would that make Dominic Cummings his Talleyrand? (after Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord 1754-1838, Napoleon’s éminence grise.)

The Duke of Wellington once remarked that the battle plans of Napoleon were made of marble, whereas his own were made of little bits of string. Napoleon’s plans were brilliant and effective, as majestic as a triumphal arch. However, they all shared one fatal flaw: if one little bit went wrong then the whole edifice came crashing down. Wellington said that his own battle plans were different: if one string broke, he would merely knot two other strings together and the plan would continue on.

The pdf what Cummings wrote*  has the feel of man attempting to build a Napoleonic battle plan in order to sort out, once and for all, all the tiresome disagreements about educational policy.

And there’s no denying the man has been busy: he has read a lot. An awful lot. From a very wide range of authors. And it’s quite an interesting and eclectic read.

But it also gives the impression of being no more than an energetic exercise in quote mining, and not a dispassionate investigation of the issues. In other words, I strongly suspect that Cummings read so widely in order to find extracts to support his pre-existing views, rather than thoughts or insights to help form or challenge them.

Reading this document, I was put in mind, more than once, of the fictional doctor, Andrey Yefimitch:

“You know, of course,” the doctor went on quietly and deliberately, “that everything in this world is insignificant and uninteresting except the higher spiritual manifestations of the human mind … Consequently the intellect is the only possible source of enjoyment.”

— Anton Chekov, Ward 6

Cummings laments that “less than one percent are well educated in the basics of how the ‘unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics’ provides the language of nature and a foundation for our scientific civilisation.” That, though true, is not necessarily a reason for lambasting our current education system as “mediocre at best”. For me, this seems a curious priority.

Sir Isaac Newton was roundly criticised by his contemporaries for lacking a solid theoretical foundation for the infinitesimal calculus: Bishop Berkeley accused him of trafficking in “the ghosts of vanished quantities”. A couple of centuries later, the rigorous** notion of a limit laid that criticism to rest. Now of course it is generally better to understand more rather than less, but would learning about the foundational difficulties of the calculus be the most pressing priority of a 18th Century student of Physics? I would argue no, not necessarily.

For my part, I have thought long and hard about the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences” (in Eugene Wigner’s phrase). I have discussed it with students. I think it’s a fascinating issue, and I adore far-ranging, off-spec discussions of this ilk. But is it an educational priority? Not in my opinion.

Other parts of the pdf seem just plain odd to me:

It would be interesting to collect information on elite intelligence and special forces training programmes (why are some better than others at decisions under pressure and surviving disaster?). E.g. Post-9/11, US special forces (acknowledged and covert) have greatly altered … How does what is regarded as ‘core training’ for such teams vary and how is it changing?

— Cummings, p.98

Interesting, sure. These special forces teams are (I presume) made up of already highly-motivated and highly-capable individuals. Cummings overarching priority always seems to be towards the individuals on far right of the “bell curve” (another Cummings hot topic: see pp.13, 20, 67, 224 and others). He genuinely seems to recoil in fastidious horror at the very concept of being “mediocre”.

This essay is aimed mainly at ~15-25 year-olds and those interested in more ambitious education and training for them. Not only are most of them forced into mediocre education but they are also then forced into dysfunctional institutions where many face awful choices: either conform to the patterns set by middle-aged mediocrities (don’t pursue excellence, don’t challenge bosses’ errors, and so on) or soon be despised and unemployed.

–Cummings p.4

Compare with Dr Yefimitch:

Life is a vexatious trap; when a thinking man reaches maturity and attains to full conciousness he cannot help feeling that he is in a trap from which there is no escape.

— Anton Chekov, Ward 6

Apparently, Mr Cummings plans to leave the DoE and take up the headship of a Free School. Although I have serious reservations about the Free School programme, I welcome this as an encouraging example of a politician putting his money where his mouth is. And I wish him well. I genuinely do.

However, from my own experience I have to say that I do not think his abstract philosophy will be as reliable a guide for navigating the choppy waters of a headteacher’s life as he believes it will be.

I have quoted from Chekov’s Ward 6 already. This masterful short story is the best description I have ever come across of the result of a collision between a man with an abstract philosophy and real life. In a discussion with a lunatic, Dr Yefimitch proposes that: “There is no real difference between a warm, snug study and this [cold, freezing] ward … A man’s peace and contentment do not lie outside a man, but in himself.” However, disaster strikes and he is committed to the asylum:

Andrey Yefimitch was even now convinced that there was no difference between his landlady’s house and Ward No. 6, that everything in the world was nonsense and the vanity of vanities. And yet his hands were trembling, his feet were cold, and he was filled with dread…

Now, I am not suggesting that our Dom will end up in an insane asylum, or even cold, hungry and alone. What I suggesting is that since one Free School head of what might be described as “the-how-hard-can-it-be?” tendency has, sadly, already bitten the dust, Mr Cummings may find that running a school (or just being a plain old teacher for that matter) requires far more than is dreamt of in his philosophy.

Unless, that is, he learns to make his plans out of string rather than out of marble…


* This joke ©Morecambe and Wise c.1972, as are most of the rest of my jokes
** Now where have I heard that word before?