Sunday, 29 March 2015

The People I Respect in Education

2015 is the year that Marty McFly arrives in a future of hoverboards, self-drying jackets and pizzas that come as tiny dried tablets.
Robert Zemeckis is a clever chap. When writing the Back to the Future movies, he chose the years 1955, 1985 and 2015. This is not just on the off chance.
A thirty year gap does of course play right for the intergenerational conundrums which befall the hapless McFly family, but thirty years is important for a more important reason. To sell movies (and boy, did that franchise sell), the writer needs to tap into something in an audience – a familiarity, a connection, an emotion. Setting the first movie in 1985 and 1955 is so easy because, effectively, they are the same year.
The eighties saw a huge fifties revival sweep across America. The music, the fashion, the teen culture were incredibly similar. And so it was, when cashing in on a follow up movie, Zemeckis knew that the wise thing to do would be to choose 2015. He had no idea if we'd be flying about in garishly coloured cars by then, but he did know that fashion would be repeating itself. He was able to have sets and costumes designed to mimic the 1950s and 1980s – look at the 'futuristic' clothes that the youths in the cafĂ© are wearing and you can't find much difference from the greasers of the fifties.
Fashion has, and always will, come around in thirty-year cycles. It is not rocket science to understand that those so deeply influenced by the clothes, music and movies of one era – the 15 year olds – are those same people who thirty years on – now aged 45 – are the music producers, TV executives, decision makers and fashion designers of the day. We can't, as a species, help but hark back to our youth and misremember it more favourably and more colourful than it actually was. This is why we recreate that past or at least a new iteration of thirty years ago.
You just have to look at the t-shirts and pumps that 15 years olds are wearing today or listen to the new-romantic-esque sounds of some of the most popular bands, to know that 1985 is indeed back. And we even have thumb print operated doors and lights that come on to a clap. Well done, Mr Zemeckis.
This cycle of fashions and fads is not restricted to clothing and pop culture.
Popular approaches and policies in education work on exactly the same time cycle.
I have a certain soft spot for hippies. A certain understanding of those old boys who dress as though it were 1969 and have done ever since it was. They found a look, they found a belief and values that work for them. And they are sticking to it. Of course, at the moment, they are out of cycle, but the 1990s crusties and new age types brought them back to fashion again for a while and in 10 years they will back hip once more (those who are still alive). Peace and love will return, man.
I think there is something quite special and important about a person who experiences a great deal, tries many different things, experiments and works out what they believe in. Then stays loyal to it. Conversely, I worry about those who have never bothered to live and then pontificate in a role as a teacher about how the next generation should live.
The people I respect in education?
They are the grumpy old buggers, the beleaguered, the disillusioned, the bitter. They are also the young who have experimented enough to come to an informed conclusion and are now pinning their colours to the mast.
Some of us grumpy old buggers should really be quite happy just now. I should be. You see, I'm back in fashion (though most certainly not in clothing or music tastes – still have a while to wait for that to come back around). In terms of the predominant movements in education, I'm on the mark. I believe in rigour and intellectualism, challenge, connectionism, I believe that the purpose of schools is to hand down a body of knowledge, I believe that the answer lies within the profession and that upping the bar is always a good thing to do, I believe that teachers should be towering intellects able to make children yearn for knowledge, I believe in a model of curriculum that ensures everyone studying mathematics is able to firmly grip underlying concepts before building on top of them (see my Jenga speeches or my 'Every Single Child Can Pass Mathematics' article), I believe that social class is not a barrier and I hate apologists who want 'poor' kids to study less demanding subjects. Much of this would sound perfectly familiar in a 1950s schooling discussion as it would seem all too familiar to the team who wrote the 1980s Cockcroft Report.
So I should be very happy that many of the ideals I hold for education are increasingly becoming demanded in England's schools. The trouble is, of course, that I am an old bugger. I have witnessed it before and I know that the cycle will continue on. All of this good will inevitably be lost. There is already a watering down happening since Gove was sacked.
The cycle is so predictable, so perfectly timed. Look at the destruction of education in the 1970s by apologist 'progressives' who sought to make sure that schooling was about self-esteem and feeling happy-clappy and to Hell with becoming cleverer, and you'll see an almost perfect repeat of this in the 2000s when Balls and Gilbert, with the ever so twee DCSF looking like a bloody children's cartoon book and Ofsted doing its bidding, systematically reduced schools to wishy-washy, bleeding heart, balls of cotton wool to wrap children in. Repeating those mistakes of the past means we have as a nation, once again, churned out a generation of young adults who are wet and without ambition.
So, although it does feel nice to be in fashion again, I'm only saddened that it will not last. This is probably no bad thing, I guess, the pendulum has to swing.
It is also an important aspect of human psychology that we feel we have our time to be the FIRST to feel this way, the FIRST to have ever thought this, the FIRST to have discovered a NEW way. Just as the 15 year old needs to think that his parents couldn't possibly, ever, no way, understand the style of his trainers, so it is that each wave in education must be the preserve of those finding it for the first time themselves.
The people I respect in education?
They are those who have evaluated the evidence, who have given great thought to what works, who have tested and researched and then come to a conclusion and stuck to it. I respect those who ignore fad, who do not do the bidding of quangos just to curry favour and promote themselves, those who always do what they truly believe is in the best interest of students and don't give two hoots for whatever mantra Ofsted is currently delivering on behalf of ministers (while simultaneously denying that they do).
When I hear teachers telling me they are wholesale changing their year 7 curriculum to ensure that kids become secure in concepts (even though I believe this to be right) I can't help but thinking, well what the fuck were you doing before?! Any why?! And I know that, as soon as the next popular phrase or ministerial decree comes along, they will change everything again. These teachers break my heart because of the sheer lack of thought that they employ and the risk that they pose to students' advancement.
At least those who peddle things like Learning Styles and stick to it forever are consistent – for that they get some respect. Don't get me wrong, Learning Styles peddlers are swivel-eyed loons with absolutely no place in any education system, but at least they believe in something!
During my time working in education, I was largely not in fashion. Time and again I was reprimanded by SMT and Ofsted for teaching my kids really well and getting really good grades – reprimanded because the way I went about achieving this did not fit their moronic observation grids or latest claptrap they had heard from a consultant.
I'm not bitter about this (yet) because I simply didn't care. I would have happily been sacked from being a maths teacher if my Headteacher wasn't interested in students becoming very knowledgeable and skilled in maths. That would have been fine by me and I would have happily buggered off back to working as a mathematician for the oil company I left to join teaching.
So many times over the years I have met really excellent teachers who have been told by their SMT or LA that they are failing or 'unsatisfactory', when in fact it was the Head or consultant who lacked the intellect to see that what they were doing was extremely effective, even if it didn't tick boxes.
It is sad for me to recall these incidences. I think of one particularly talented man, who I'm delighted to be working with again now, who I met in the mid-2000s just as New Labour was really ripping any rigour from the classroom. Talking with him was so upsetting – it was as though he had had the life drained from him and every ounce of passion for teaching beaten out of him. Here he was, an intelligent and eloquent mathematician being continually told he was a failure by those far less bright and talented as him. What a perverse situation.
One thing I am acutely aware of as I grow older is that I am fast becoming a parody of myself. I catch myself at times sounding like a broken record. Much of what I have written here I covered in my 2004 book 'On Being a Teacher' and here I am more than a decade later still banging the same drum.
I'm ok with that. It's my drum and I like it. It's nice to have some company at the moment and I am fully aware that in a very short space of time we will be entering the repeats of the 1990s (and 1960s) and I will look as odd and out of place as those glazed eyed hippies you see from time to time. My argument for rigour and intellect in schools will become as unfashionable as leg warmers and roller-skates. I will once again be a figure of ridicule because I'll still be saying the same things. Those eager middle managers of today buying into theories and practices that I actually wholeheartedly agree with, will be riding the wave of the next trend because they don't actually want to read or engage with evidence, they just want to look good on an Ofsted form. Little do they seem to know is that all you have to do is look backwards to see what's coming up.
I am heartened to discover a new group of maths teachers joining the debate – like the 60s hippies adopting the 90s crusties. I'm overjoyed when I read things like Mel Muldowney's blog in which she is happy about being challenged. I am proud when I see scores of teachers delivering workshops at our national conferences which are defensible and evidenced based.
Time will pass and some of these new teachers will stay wedded to what they espouse at the moment – they will become unfashionable with me, but will at least have the chance to come back into a position of respect in the 2040s. Most though, as history shows us, will move with the trends and never really believe anything other than playing the game.
The people I respect in education?
Hopefully you, dear reader.