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.

Wilshaw’s “Block of Wood” Moment?

Old Andrew draws our attention to an apparent turnaround in the Ofsted framework which make them less judgemental of traditional, didactic teaching techniques.

Inspectors must not give the impression that Ofsted favours a particular teaching style. Moreover, they must not inspect or report in a way that is not stipulated in the framework, handbook or guidance. For example, they should not criticise teacher talk for being overlong or bemoan a lack of opportunity for different activities in lessons unless there is unequivocal evidence that this is slowing learning over time.

— Ofsted [1]

I have mixed feelings about Sir Michael Wilshaw, the instigator of this change. On the one hand, I have been dismayed with comments like “if anyone says to you that ‘staff morale is at an all-time low’ you will know you are doing something right.” [2]. On the other, in some speeches it seemed that he was attempting to address the dead hand of trendy “group-work-good, teacher-talk-bad” Ofsted orthodoxy.

In a previous post, I likened Wilshaw to the captain of a supertanker, and asked whether he would be able to rein in the “talk-less-teaching” rottweilers on his staff. Large organisations can have a momentum as stubborn as supertanker and plough onwards in the same direction for mile after mile, whatever the frantic signals from the wheelhouse say.

In this latest iteration of the ever-changing whirligig that is the Ofsted inspection framework, Wilshaw appears to have nailed his colours to the mast. Rather than “T” for “Trendy” it seems that he is flying the “P” for “Pragmatic” flag — anything goes, as long as it works.

And it is a change for the better, as long as inspection teams adhere to the guidance. (How we can judge exactly what works is another can of worms that I don’t propose to dig into here.)

Could this be the defining moment for Wilshaw? Possibly, it could be his “block of wood” moment.

Knowing also that the severities of the past had earned him a certain amount of hatred, to purge the minds of the people and to win them over completely he determined to show that if cruelties had been inflicted they were not his doing but prompted by the harsh nature of his minister. …. [T]hen, one morning, [the minister’s] body was found cut in two pieces on the piazza at Cesena, with a block of wood and a bloody knife beside it. The brutality of this spectacle kept the people of the Romagna for a time appeased and stupefied.

— Niccolo Machiavelli, “New principalities acquired with the help of fortune”, The Prince


The reference is to a story about Cesare Borgia and how he calmed a turbulent province by appointing a “cruel and unscrupulous man” to rule as his minister. When the man’s severe methods had secured a measure of peace and calm to the territory, Cesare Borgia dispensed with his services in the very final and bloody way outlined above.

Just to be clear, I am likening Wilshaw to Borgia and saying that he has, essentially, dispensed with the services of the previous “cruel and unscrupulous” style of Ofsted framework in a very public way. OK, so it’s by way of pressing the delete key on a keyboard rather than a bloody knife, but I hope you get my drift.

Every headteacher I have ever worked with has been a consumate politician (which is not automatically a bad thing, by the way), and I cannot help but wonder if this is only a part of a “Great Game” being played out. (Unlikely, I know, but it’s fun to speculate: the more probable, pedestrian truth is that, as a character in All The President’s Men observed, “they’re just not that bright.”)

And so is the teaching profession “appeased and stupefied” by Wilshaw’s action? A little bit, perhaps. For my part, I will wait and see what effect this has on the next round of inspection reports and (perhaps more importantly) internal school observation criteria before I celebrate, but I am, I must confess, faintly encouraged.

And on that cheerful note: Happy New Year!



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.

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.

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?

I Will Have At Thee With Mine Index Finger! Or, Two Thumbs Good

Not for the first time, I did a double take during a lesson today. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought one student was texting. During an AS Physics lesson? Shameful! This behaviour cannot and must not be tolerated!

Screenshot 2023-04-08 11.05.35

But she wasn’t texting at all. She was actually using her scientific calculator to solve projectile problems exactly as I’d asked her to do — but using her thumbs to press the keys rather than her fingers. And she was holding the calculator in exactly the way she would hold a smartphone when texting.

Possibly this seems unremarkable to you. I guess it depends on your generation. It seems remarkable to me. Let me explain why.

Similar to my first calculator, but ours had even more keys.

I still remember the first scientific calculator that entered my parents’ house. It was a hulking unwieldy thing with a primitive red LED display that completely drained a 9V battery after barely an hour of use; it also had what seemed like a button for each and every function (e.g. a separate button for both sine and inverse sine), since the SHIFT key had yet to be invented. It was still hailed as a liberator, since it freed me from the tedium of looking up values in printed, mark you, printed log and sine tables.

The calculator was placed flat on the table, or held in my left hand, and the keys pressed using my right index finger. It’s the way I still use a calculator today.

Not so the young folks of today. They have been raised from birth using a variety of teeny tiny little keyboards. I don’t know if it was a lone, unsung genius who figured out that holding a touch screen keypad firmly in both hands and operating the keys using two thumbs was preferable to the I-shall-stab-at-thee-with-mine-index-finger method, or whether it hailed from the mind of Steve Jobs or his minions, but the technique has conquered the world.

Even I use it with my phone these days, although at such a slow, cack-handed pace that it makes any teenagers in the vicinity wince with frustration.

And why do I think that this is worth commenting on? Because this is an example of a real live copper-bottomed twenty-first century skill. It is an efficient, effective way of interacting with mobile electronic technology

You know the “Shift Happens“* brigade, those folks who say that the current education system is not teaching the skills necessary for the world of tomorrow?

Well, taught or not, it seems that some of the “skills of tomorrow” are developing apace. And I think that it is a skill that could not have been anticipated by any futurologist. It developed to meet a need to input data quickly and accurately on a mobile device.

But you know what has not changed for the student I mentioned above? The mathematical knowledge required to press the number and function keys in the correct sequence. I may not have taught my students the “two thumbs” input technique, but at least I taught them the mathematical foundations required to use a calculator to solve Physics problems. The other stuff they were able to teach themselves. (Good thing too, because I don’t think I could.)

I feel that examples like this quite take the wind out of the sails of those who claim that traditional teaching is too “old hat” to be taken seriously: it’s the traditional skills that provide the footing for the new skills. I think that we ignore that truth at our peril.

Screenshot 2023-04-08 11.07.48

The fact is that human beings have adapted successfully to many novel changes in the past. The likelihood is that we will continue to do so, albeit in ways that may well be surprising and unexpected. But the point is, we generally build on or adapt things which have worked in the past. Evolution rather than revolution if you will.

I think that too many people have claimed oracular powers to see into the future and thus justify the revolutionary changes they wish to make to the education system. Frequently these appeals sound plausible and have emotional power, with phrases like flexibility and creativity and breaking the factory model, but as Tom Bennett points out in Chapter 9 of his excellent Teacher Proof, these buzzwords are about as deep and thoughtful as they go. Pragmatic Education also also does a good job of taking down one of these oracles in a recent post.

There is no royal road to educational nirvana, no quick revolutionary fix to make people learn without effort and hard work.

Do you want me to walk otherwise than with my feet, and to talk otherwise than with my mouth?
— Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary

I think that, as Voltaire suggests, we will continue to walk with our feet and talk with our mouths for a long whiles yet. But we may well be typing more with our thumbs…

*The Youtube video that has launched a thousand CPDs

Weasel Words in Education Part 2: Work Smarter, Not Harder

Work Smarter, Not Harder!

This is an increasingly common phrase in the education world.

It means, basically, work harder! [FX: WHIP CRACK]

It is often associated, strangely enough, with very poorly thought-out initiatives. Some cosmic karmic balance demands that a lack of cognitive effort by the management is balanced by an excess of cognition by the hapless underlings affected.

Rumour has it that this is especially prevalent in schools that have added the word “Academy” to their letterheads and logos, but scholars disagree if this is a case of causation or mere correlation.

Weasel Words in Education Part 1: Intervention

Intervention (n. and v.)

– as in “What interventions have you put in place?” or “We’ll have to intervention this!” or (even more common) “You’ll have to intervention this!”

Meaning: doing stuff of doubtful or unclear efficacy mainly for the sake of being seen to do some stuff.

Some words sound better than others. For example, “I kicked some butt at work today!” sounds better than “I wrote a stiffly-worded email to query an invoice.”

So with the word intervention. “I staged an intervention to address underachievement in the Year 10 target group” does sound more dynamic, proactive and energetic than “I got a bunch of Year 10s to stay behind after school and nagged them for a bit.”

This is a word beloved of SLTs* and similar riffraff. Essentially, it is a long-winded way of “Do something!”. The unspoken subtext that should be tacked on to the end is “…so that I don’t have to.”

Most interventions happen outside of the normal school day. After school interventions are a perennial favourite. Never mind that most researchers (correctly, in my opinion) identify such activities as “High Effort, Low Impact.”

When the test scores are down and the going gets tough, the tough get . . . some unenthusiastic kids together in a room and read some powerpoint slides at them. Or, get them to do some card sort activities, where cutting out and laminating the cards takes up to seventeen times longer than the bloody card sort activity itself takes to do. Or, nag them. Yes, nag them with as much energy, sincerity and passion as you can summon at the end of a full teaching day when you are knackered and bursting to go the loo.

This is the way to the educational promised land, my friends. To a better place that is overflowing with the milk of EBaccs and the honey of Ofsted-approval, and yet which remains free of the evil spectre of grade inflation!

Let us all put interventions in place now! Interventions today! Interventions tomorrow! Targeted interventions for all!

After all, its not as if the kids were actually taught this stuff in lessons during the normal school day, is it? I mean, it stands to reason, doesn’t it? It’s not their fault that they weren’t listening/trying/paying attention, is it? Otherwise, they wouldn’t need all these sodding ‘interventions’ all the time…

*Senior Leadership Team

Bloom Schloom; or, some research what I have auto-didactically done

“Use Bloom’s taxonomy here for a quick win with Ofsted!!!!”
— AHT giving lesson observation preparation advice, sometime in 2013. [Note: the multiple exclamation points are to give the reader some indication of the evangelical zeal with which this advice was imparted.]


 “I can’t remember the last time I met a teacher who knew if Bloom’s taxonomy was ever criticised”   — Tom Bennett, Teacher Proof, Kindle Locations 191-192. Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition 2013


I must confess, at the outset, that Bloom’s taxonomy has never sat right with me: for example, is it always the case that creating is always more cognitively demanding than (say) applying? So, creating a story about how the dog ate my homework is more cognitively demanding than applying Einstein’s time dilation equation?

I thought I was alone in my scepticism until I came across Tom Bennett’s comment (quoted above). However, even our very own Ben Goldacre-style enfant terrible of the educational research world doesn’t put the boot in to Bloom’s flipping taxonomy any further, although he does do a good job on knocking down de Bono’s coloured hats (as well as several other pieces of educational “wisdom” that he reveals to be not so wise  — read the book!)

And so I present my Bennett-ian take on Bloom’s taxonomy, the fruit of at least one afternoon of casual internet research — I’m sorry I’ll rephrase that, Ernie Wise-style, as “the research what I have auto-didactically done”. (And please note that I do not mean to imply in any way shape or form that Tom Bennett’s research for his book was as slapdash and cursory as mine…)

A taxonomy is, in its essence, nothing more or less than a system of sorting or classifying. To my mind, Bloom’s taxonomy has more of the feel of a folk taxonomy than a scientific taxonomy. For example, the folk classification of the large plants in a garden as trees, shrubs or flowers would be more than adequate for the average layperson. However, a botanist or gardener would probably require a more rigorous classification system using actual detailed scientific observations of the characteristics of the plants, rather than a handwaving “it’s a bit bushy” or “it looks tree-y”.

At first glance, it might seem obvious that creating is more cognitively demanding than (say) applying. But is it? How do we know? It seems to me that in order to accept this as a fact we need a sound model of how the human mind actually works. Is it always the case that creating always trumps applying? From my (admittedly limited) understanding of neuroscience, it seems to me that creating involves many brain processes and that these are currently poorly understood. The same can be said of the brain processes involved in applying. As a consequence, to place the two in any sort of cognitive hierarchy is, at best, premature.

The danger is that Bloom’s taxonomy is prejudicial in the sense that it assigns relative value to certain nebulously-defined types of thinking. As psychologist Robert J. Sternberg says, such theories “often do not have the clarity in epistemological status” that is required of a scientific taxonomy. So what we are left with is a folk taxonomy common among educational practitioners.

But how common? As Brenda Sugrue notes, even fans of Bloom’s taxonomy do not always agree on the level of a given learning objective: “it might be classified into either of the two lowest levels [ . . . ] or into any of the four highest levels [ . . . ] by different designers.” Sugrue argues that Bloom’s taxonomy:

was developed before we understood the cognitive processes involved in learning and performance. The categories or “levels” of Bloom’s taxonomy … are not supported by any research on learning. The only distinction that is supported by research is the distinction between declarative/conceptual knowledge … and procedural knowledge (which enables application or task performance).

It might seem, therefore, that possibly Bloom’s taxonomy is not even a folk taxonomy within the educational community, but rather it is simply a taxonomy of personal preference with regard to educational objectives.

David Morrison-Love makes the point that “the contribution made by Bloom’s Taxonomy cannot be underestimated, as a communication system derived from classifying different types of exam questions”; but goes on to say that  he does “not view the elements in Bloom’s Taxonomy as successive levels, but simply a collection of equally important intellectual processes I wish to promote and develop in learners; the challenge of which I control.”

Many of the authors cited propose alternative systems to replace Bloom’s taxonomy. At the moment, I am not sure whether any of these are worth considering.

However, the point of this blog post is to warn you that if that ubiquitous multicoloured triangle is flashed without a caveat on to a training screen near you, it could be an indication that the presenter has not done his or her homework, and that his or her assurances that what they say is based on  what ” research shows” may not be as rock solid as they might appear.


The Woman Who Is Kicking the Hornets’ Nest

So, I’m reading  Seven Myths about Education.  Just like most of the rest of the teaching blogosphere, I suspect. And just like most of the rest of the teaching blogosphere, I have an opinion about it. Several, as a matter of fact. And since I am now about halfway through, I thought I’d share my thrupence’ worth.

To begin with, is Ms Christodoulou more like the boy who cried that the king had no clothes or the boy who cried wolf?

For my money, she is more the former than the latter. I think the estimable Ms Christodolou is calling time on some pretty dodgy ideas.

Some ideas are as ubiquitous and seemingly essential as air, but as Joseph Joubert correctly opined: “A thought is a thing as real as a cannonball”.  And in some circumstances, the wrong idea can be more dangerous than a large round metal ball travelling at close to the speed of sound.

Now teaching-wise, I have to confess that I have been around the block a few times. I am the definitive “old fart in the staffroom”. Like many old farts, I could bring myself to believe that oftentimes it is not what Ofsted actually said that was the main problem, but what all-too-many people thought that Ofsted said: some half-remembered, half-digested soundbite from some godforsaken half-decade-old CPD.

Christodoulou marshals some convincing evidence that often it is the actual demands of Ofsted that create the problem. It seems that Ofsted genuinely do not like didactic teaching, and we’re not just imagining it. Christodoulou presents some damning examples of the current vogue of trashing “teacher talk” from inspection reports. Whether Wilshaw will be able to rein in the “talk-less-teaching” rottweilers on his staff is open to debate. Large organisations can have a momentum as stubborn as supertanker and carry on going in the same direction for mile after mile, whatever the frantic signals from the wheelhouse say.

One of the passages that resonated most strongly with me was this:

For example, in a project that involved pupils writing any type of extended writing … I would provide them with a helpsheet summarising what they should put in each paragraph. […] Rather than breaking down the individual components required to write good reports and teaching those, I was asking students to write a report and then giving them a few cheats or hints about how to do it. It is rather like teaching pupils a few cheats or hints that would help them play a certain song on the piano, while neglecting to teach them the scales and musical notation.
— Location 1727, Kindle edition

Been there, done that, smugly uploaded the worksheet on to the TES Resources website…

She quotes psychologist Dan Willingham: “the most general and useful idea that cognitive psychology can offer teachers [is to] review each lesson plan in terms of what the student is likely to think about.”

Christodoulou argues that teaching (say) Romeo and Juliet by getting the students to make fingerpuppets of the main characters is counterproductive because the students spend more time thinking about making fingerpuppets rather than Romeo and Juliet. “That is not to say that … puppetmaking [is] unimportant. The problem is that this lesson . . . was supposed to be about Romeo and Juliet. If the aim of the lesson was … how to make a puppet, it would have been a good lesson. Not only do these types of lesson fail in their ultimate aims, but because they are so time-consuming, they also have a very significant opportunity cost.”

I agree with Christodoulou that direct instruction is often the most effective form of teaching. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not proposing that teachers spend the whole of the lesson talking at their charges. What I am saying is that students’ thinking should be channelled to engage as directly with the concepts being taught as possible. And at the heart of good teaching is clear, succinct, unhurried teacher talk.

The fingerpuppet stuff I have done, but only to pass observations. Sadly, honesty is not the best policy these days.

A while back, Arnold Schwarzenegger was The Terminator: robot on the inside, human on the outside.

Call me the The Didactor: steely-eyed, garrulous, “I’ve-got-a-banda-and-I’m-not-afraid-to-use-it” old-school (hah!) schoolteacher on the inside; cuddly, Ofsted-friendly, near-mute “lesson-facillitator” on the outside (readers of a certain generation are invited to think of a cross between Fingerbobs and Marcel Marceau).

Sigh, I wish. I got a 3 (“Requires improvement”) in my last lesson observation.

The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.

— Jean Giraudoux

More sincere faking is required on my part, I feel.