The Universal Panacea? The number one shift in UK education I wish to see in my lifetime

This post is a response to the #blogsync topic for January suggested by Edutronic here:

In an ideal world, where money, policy and societal expectations were not a problem, what would be the one shift that you’d like to see in UK education?

Without a great deal of thought I know the my one-word answer straight away…


There is a distinct lack of trust in teachers in our modern society, and it’s stifling the profession. It’s a top-down propagation of distrust, too, long engrained in policy and only getting more problematic with every passing government.

The origins of distrust: Disempowering professionals

The erosion of trust in professionals by the government in the UK is old news, so I’ll keep my recap brief. It arguably started with Thatcher’s “New Public Management” restructuring of the public sector, and was certainly continued under the Blair premiership’s ‘new managerial’ agenda.  The resulting model of professionals has endured, and in the UK we now find ourselves with a government that is perpetuating, if not extending, such an agenda. This is highlighted in the Open Public Services white paper, which specifically promotes a decentralised approach to public service provision reminiscent of the 1980’s. Mr Cameron’s assertion that these changes “will be felt in every state school, hospital and prison, by every doctor, teacher, parent, patient and citizen” seems deaf to the loud complaints from many professional bodies who argue that these changes are detrimental to the services provided by professionals. A prime example of the response from the education sector can be seen in the Key Facts for NUT members on the new ballot which states that

This Government is more aggressive towards teachers than any we have known.

The neo-liberalisation of the professions has produced a climate of performativity, a mode of regulation whereby the documented performance of an individual or group serves as a measure of their productivity. Ball calls it “the translation of complex social processes and events into simple figures or categories of judgement”. On the surface these tools of monitoring and regulation are employed by the government in an attempt to increase transparency, accountability, and therefore public trust of professionals, but it has not worked out that way. Instead it has resulted in a disempowerment of teachers, as individual professional judgement has given way to a homogenised adherence to ‘standards’, and a strive to climb the league tables or be given the glory of an ‘outstanding’ label.

As a result we have a situation where schools and teachers are monitored through exam results and ‘snapshot’ OfSTED judgements against a set of national standards. This shows very little trust in autonomous professionalism, and little awareness of the role teachers can play in the local community.

What I feel is now required is the (re-)introduction of trust in teachers as autonomous professionals, resulting in a stronger connection with the local community and a move away from standardised central governance; a task made far more difficult now we have no local authority ‘middle-tier’ with which to collaborate.

Connecting locally, not nationally

So how can we, the teachers, fix this erosion of trust that is built into policy? I think the approach may be threefold.

  1. Accept the fact that we are street-level bureaucrats, and therefore ultimately in control of what happens in our classroom. I’m not saying that you should be like Judge Dredd, metering out education as and how you see fit, but also don’t be a slave to every top-down initiative. As Anderson says “somewhere in between it provides the freedom needed by teachers to function professionally and effectively in their classrooms”.
  2. Create a little ‘wriggle room‘; absolute standardisation leaves no space for local knowledge. All communities are not created equal, so “one-size-fits-all” will do no good. Again, as a professional, you decide how to apply policy to your schools and classes, so look for a little space for customisation when implementing directives.
  3. Lastly, know your community. It’s impossible to customise your practice without a sound knowledge of the community that you are customising it for. This isn’t just a case of looking at socio-economic data, get out there and see it first-hand. Take a staff field trip one evening to a local pub, or have a weekend jaunt to the local shopping centre. Talk to students about life outside the classroom, and where and how they spend their time. Engage with local businesses and community groups; can you get them to come into school and collaborate on a project? It’s all material that you can use to make sure you are doing the best by your students and their community.

I think it is time to take pride in being a teacher again. We work hard, strive to improve, and do the best that we can for the young minds that we encounter. Blogging is an ideal way to document this, and sharing these concerns and aims publicly means that we can be held personally accountable in far more transparent ways than performative league tables and snapshot inspections allow.

Trust is an earned and mutual commodity, let’s show that we both have it for and deserve it from our most important beneficiaries; the local community.

The Teacher (Part 2): Individualisation – Life on the farm

As I mentioned in here, this is part of a series of posts looking at how Teachers and the education system might adapt to the modern world. It is all based around this facetious little paragraph I sent to a friend who was thinking of training to be a teacher:

A long, long time ago in a land far, far away… There was a Teacher. This teacher was a solid reliable thing, that worked tirelessly day-in and day-out to provide their pupils with the best education possible.

They delivered important knowledge, assigned grades, marked many, many books, and ensured that all of the young people they taught learnt valuable life skills such as getting the Right Answers to many Important Questions, working quietly at a desk, and not cheating in tests.

There are many different ways a Teacher can be conceptualised – instructor, presenter, artist, gardener, zookeeper, etc – but the analogy I like is that of a farmer. Farmers take something which already has the potential to grow, and provide the right conditions for this to happen. It’s a messy process, and a time-consuming one, and one way or another the farmer frequently gets covered in shit. I’m sure that you can see the similarity with teaching already. The idea of this post is to see how we, as teacher/farmers, fit into the current education system.

The opening quote above contains the line

“…to provide pupils with the best education possible…”

My major concern here is who decides what the “best education” is? How can such a subjective concept as education be graded from good to bad? There’s no doubt in my mind that the current standardised, homogenised curriculum that we ‘provide’ offers an education, but if a teacher or pupil doesn’t like it well that’s just tough; it’s in the exam, and it’s “what you need to know”. This model reminds me of the fable “The Animal School” by George Reavis. Whilst is has a certain American flavour, it certainly highlights the absurdity of our current situation:

Once upon a time the animals decided they must do something heroic to meet the problems of a “new world” so they organized a school. They had adopted an activity curriculum consisting of running, climbing, swimming and flying. To make it easier to administer the curriculum, all the animals took all the subjects.

The duck was excellent in swimming. In fact, better than his instructor. But he made only passing grades in flying and was very poor in running. Since he was slow in running, he had to stay after school and also drop swimming in order to practice running. This was kept up until his webbed feet were badly worn and he was only average in swimming. But average was acceptable in school so nobody worried about that, except the duck.

The rabbit started at the top of the class in running but had a nervous breakdown because of so much makeup work in swimming.

The squirrel was excellent in climbing until he developed frustration in the flying class where his teacher made him start from the ground up instead of the treetop down. He also developed a “charlie horse” from overexertion and then got a C in climbing and D in running.

The eagle was a problem child and was disciplined severely. In the climbing class, he beat all the others to the top of the tree but insisted on using his own way to get there.

At the end of the year, an abnormal eel that could swim exceeding well and also run, climb and fly a little had the highest average and was valedictorian.

The prairie dogs stayed out of school and fought the tax levy because the administration would not add digging and burrowing to the curriculum. They apprenticed their children to a badger and later joined the groundhogs and gophers to start a successful private school.

As this video shows we are absolutely making our rabbits swim and our ducks run. But why? Daniel H. Pink suggests that it is a matter of convenience;

One of the things that I see as an outsider is that so much of education policy seems designed for the convenience of adults rather than the education of children…

(Quote taken from this brilliant post: if you get a chance, read it!)

This approach, backed by a government committed to “deliverology” (PDF), has resulted in an industrial model of education, with pupils sorted in batches by age rather than ability (or even better, by interest) and priority given to subjects with the greatest perceived economic merit – “You need to study maths or you won’t be able to get a job” has the unspoken addendum “and pay your taxes, thus contributing to society”. Accountability here stems from a measurement of metrics rather than teacher evaluation, as seen with Ofsted’s obsession with measurable “progress”. Of course there is a new elephant in the room – if my students’ grades aren’t good enough, I won’t be getting an annual pay increment.

There are many outside of education that think this is fair enough, but I disagree, and not because of the potential impact on my salary. I object because it reduces pupils to a series of numbers, comparing them to each other and against a set of objective standards. But this is not how people work, how people are, and certainly isn’t preparation for the adult world where education is an individual and ongoing process. Education is absolutely subjective, what we envisage as the “best education possible” might not be what our pupils think. And who says that they are wrong? Why, for example, do they need to learn about the working of a human heart if they can fire up YouTube and find out for themselves when the need arises? Why force a dancer to learn about plate tectonics in a classroom when they may be more moved to study it themselves after seeing a particularly good piece of interpretive dance based on earthquakes? I recognise that this approach is starting to sound a little like the somewhat controversial Montessori approach, but perhaps it is more suited for modern life than our traditional, industrial model.

What can we do?

My initial argument is that teachers should be farmers, producing the right conditions for growing seeds. Some seeds grow into roses. Some grow into apple trees. Some are thorny, scrubby bushes that hide pineapples in their depths. Some seeds grow into nettles, which whilst seeming pretty angry on the outside do give rise to a delightful nettle soup with the right culinary handling. Have I exhausted that metaphor yet?

‘Growing’ our pupils as individuals is difficult, in that changes need to be made at a national level for this to happen fully. Whilst some policy makers would welcome that shift, Mr Gove and the current ConDem government most certainly would not.

In search of ways to ‘beat the system’ and individualise my work as much as possible I took to the internet. Now I am not normally an advocate of the Cult of TED, and I’m not the only one (my concerns being that such one-directional orating is rarely critically engaged with, instead being swallowed like the word of a certain other three-lettered deity), but often the concepts raised are interesting. One such speaker is Sir Ken Robinson, who said

…it’s not about scaling a new solution; it’s about creating a movement in education in which people develop their own solutions, but with external support based on a personalised curriculum.

I agree, and whilst we may have some time to wait before we get anything like a personaised curriculum, for now we are ultimately in control of what happens in our classroom. PBL is certainly a start, as it allows pupils to engage with the learning process in whatever way they see fit. Guidelines on how to implement this can be found on Edutopia. Done properly, a flipped classroom is another approach to individualise learning. But what we really need is an overhaul of the education system that plays to the strengths of individuals, allows teachers freedom to create individual professional evaluations, engages with the wider world, and recognises learning as a life-long process, not just a set of immutable exam results completed at age 18 that dictate your entire life afterwards. Sir Ken advocates a more open approach saying

…resources in business, in multimedia, in the Internet. These technologies, combined with the extraordinary talents of teachers, provide an opportunity to revolutionise education. And I urge you to get involved in it because it’s vital, not just to ourselves, but to the future of our children.

TL;DR – We’re stuck making ducks run and rabbits swim

  • The current standardised curriculum is not suitable for learners as individuals
  • Whilst any change in this may be slow to come, there are still things we can do
  • Techniques such as problem-based learning and flipped classrooms are a step in the right direction
  • Continuing to share new models of education is the only way to try and initiate wider change

The Teacher (Part 1): Kill the dinosaur

Some time ago a friend of mine, who was thinking of training to be a teacher, asked me to describe what the job was like. Being a little facetious I wrote the following:

A "traditional" teacher
Image from allthingslearning.

A long, long time ago in a land far, far away… There was a Teacher. This Teacher was a solid and reliable thing, that worked tirelessly day-in and day-out to provide their pupils with the best education possible.

They delivered important knowledge, assigned grades to measure progess, marked many, many books, and ensured that all of the young people they taught learnt valuable life skills such as getting the Right Answers to many Important Questions, working quietly at a desk, and not cheating in tests.

I stumbled across the quote again recently, and it is partially what inspired me to begin this blog. There is so much wrong with that paragraph that I have to grit my teeth every time I read it. To me it represents everything that I dislike about the current model of education that we inhabit.

The problem is that most of us came through a system very much like this; it’s a traditional view of education that can be seen across the world. And teachers, who are usually those that were successful at school, perpetuate this model, propagating their own childhood experiences and subsequent indoctrination into the profession. Policy makers may be even more indoctrinated in this educational approach, given that 35% of our MPs attended fee-paying schools with their associated ‘traditional’ value systems.

And yet we live in a different world now – I doubt I need to do more than list the following to emphasise the pace of change; XBox, iPhone, Facebook, Android, High Def and 3D TV, Credit Crunch, Facebook, Blu-ray, Twitter… All born since the turn of the millennium. Given this rapid rate of progress there is a pressing need to redefine education, providing future inhabitants with the essential skills to not only live, but to thrive in this dynamic environment.

Looking back at the opening quote, did you notice the capital letter T? I use this as I consider the Teacher to be a thing in its own right, a collection of all of the social perceptions and expectations, policy restrictions, historical baggage and cultural references that are conjured up by every use of the word. Baurillard might call this a simulacrum, with the Teacher being more ‘real’ to our pupils than the living, breathing human being standing at the front of the classroom. A fine example of this is the surprise seen in pupils’ faces when they bump into you in a supermarket – “You mean to say you exist outside of the school?!”.

But in a world that’s all about accessible information and quickly-formed relationships I feel that this Teacher is outdated, unnecessary, and not a positive role model for children of the digital age. I want to kill this model of the Teacher, and replace it with… Me. Or you. Or any other authentic, living, human teacher. Destroying this tyrannical dinosaur opens the door to a more social form of teaching, were the aim is to develop closer supportive relationships with our students, offering guidance, comment and criticality whilst they navigate the vast stores of information constantly available at their fingertips. No matter how hard this relationship building may seem at times it is far better than hiding behind the false ‘wall’ of the outdated content-driven Teacher.

This is the first of a series of posts which will begin with the same quote at the top of the page. Each will highlight the problems with this particular caricature of teaching, and perhaps offer a different way of moving forwards. Since an overnight revolution of the education system is impossible, I consider this to be sewing the seeds of change for the long term: reformism may be the way forward in education.

TL;DR – The Teacher dinosaur needs to go

  • Pupils rarely see the person, just the Teacher
  • This “traditional” Teacher is outdated and requires renovation and innovation
  • What replaces is up to each individual teaching professional, and will be explored here later
  • Any large-scale change is going to take time, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be prepared
  • Key words for the future; relationship building, research, information, evaluation