Sunday, 27 November 2016

Can you hear the people sing, singing the song of angry men?

Wherein our hero goes to wrestle a tiger, and realises that it might actually be Tigger.

I went to Michaela Community School on Friday, and attended their conference, “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers”, the following day. I wrote down my reflection on my way home, and will perhaps publish that when I’ve had chance to think it all over a bit further, and decide whether I’ve got anything to say that Doug Lemov and Tom Bennett haven’t already said in their excellent posts following their visits. Suffice to say, it is a remarkable school, with remarkable people (pupils and staff). But when I woke up this morning I’d been thinking about something else. I dreamed a dream: does it have to be a battle?

If you’ve followed the social media output relating to Michaela even vaguely, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the school was some kind of Victorian work house, presided over by Gradgrindian ogres wielding canes and destroying dreams (with a strong undercurrent that they are doing it for their own gain). You’d also be forgiven for thinking that the staff were defensive, short and, occasionally, provocatively opinionated. Some of the conversations I have read on Twitter have genuinely shocked me.

I’ll be honest, until a few months ago I wasn’t aware of there being “Progressive” teachers and “Traditional” teachers. But it turns out that there is a battle going on, and everyone is supposed to take a side. The title of the conference, the language used by several of the presenters, and the attitudes exhibited by edutweeters on both sides, screams that a war has broken out. In this context, Katherine Birbalsingh referred to Michaela being “on the right side of history” during her opening address. And it made me think: we’re teachers. All of us. Didn’t we all try and pick the right side when we decided to do this, rather than something where you got paid decent money and didn’t have to speak to teenagers all day?

Maybe I am just too soft for Twitter. Maybe all these conversations are just locker-room banter. But they do upset me. As does the implication that I’ve found myself on the “wrong” side of history because I occasionally think my pupils might learn something from doing some role-play, or talking about an issue with more than one other child. As does the fact that, when I met and spoke to them, all the Michaela teachers were warm, friendly, and open. Yes, deeply passionate and committed to their school and their pupils, but so am I. Yes, confident and proud of what they’ve achieved, and are achieving, but rightly so - I have never been in another school which radiated positivity, love and the dedicated pursuit of excellence as much as Michaela. To be honest, the enthusiasm, the love and the energy was more Tigger than tiger. So why not show that face to the world? Why do we have to fight about whether being a Progressive or Traditional is the only way to teach children?

Cause here’s the rub. While we were all in the Michaela dining hall laughing about how people used to think children had different learning styles, and making me feel daft for making pupils put on different coloured hats to have a group discussion, Rome is burning. We are bequeathing our children a world of Trump, and Brexit, and child refugees, and ISIS. And while good and smart and passionate teachers waste their time arguing with each other about the right way to teach, children are simply not getting taught how to deal with it. We are in a battle. I agree with Katherine Birbalsingh: we do need a revolution. But, despite the strong words and robust discussions, I’m sure that most teachers are more similar than we are different, and that we’re more likely to create the revolution in education, and in social mobility and in social justice, that Katherine wants, that we all want, if we work together to find out what works best, rather than spending time searching for differences and fighting about them. Katherine quoted Russell Crowe in Gladiator yesterday (“What we do in life, echoes in eternity”), but he also said, “Whatever comes through these gates, we have a better chance of survival if we work together”. There are enough people who are ready to bash teachers, let’s not spend time bashing each other.

So, I will follow Katherine onto the barricades and do what I can in my own little way (as I said yesterday, after her barnstorming address I would have followed her into Mordor. If you weren’t there, find it on the live feed; whether you agree with her or not, it was quite something). But I would like Debra Kidd and Tim Taylor to be on that barricade too, because I agree with lots of what they say as well, and I think we all want the same thing, and if you keep on telling people they are wrong they aren’t going to want to come and visit you and find out what you’re doing and that will be a shame because I think lots of what you’re doing probably is the way to win this war. But I don’t know if it’s the only way. And I’d like for everyone to be able to talk about it, without getting distracted by all this right/wrong, good/evil, prog/trad stuff. And I think, now I’ve met you, that you maybe think that too. We’re all the good guys. We need to remember that.  

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Talkin’ ‘Bout A Revolution…

Wherein our hero bares his soul to the reader and single-handedly saves the education system.

This time last year I was ready to quit teaching. I was working hard, sacrificing time with my family and friends, not exercising and, despite all this, I still felt that I wasn’t doing a good job. I wasn’t doing enough. Some teachers I know, people I like and respect, told me that the trick was to care a bit less. Which didn’t seem particularly satisfactory. So I stayed lost for a while, and even tried to get another job. I was saved, believe it or not, by Twitter. By Doug Lemov and Joe Kirby. By Debra Kidd and Ross Morrison McGill. By all the other wonderful teachers and educators who made me realise that the trick was not to care less, but to care more about what really matters. So thank you, you’re all awesome.

Now, apart from providing a charming anecdote to engage the reader, and displaying a pathetic level of sycophancy in a desperate attempt to gain acceptance from some Twitter titans, what is the point of that opening paragraph? And what has it got to do with Tracey Chapman? And, in fact, with saving the education system? Well, as I was reading about Finland scrapping subjects this week (which, of course, they are not doing; read this if you don’t believe me), I remembered something I thought about this time last year as I stared into the abyss, but which I had forgotten because it seemed too crazy. Seeing as, since this time last year, crazy seems to have become more mainstream, I thought I’d share it:

Let’s scrap exams.

Now, before you stop reading and start shaking your head at the absurd naivety of such a statement, let me explain. I don’t mean that we should stop teaching pupils the traditional subjects. I don’t mean that we should teach them with any less rigour or passion, or that we should not hold them to account for actually working hard and improving their skills and knowledge in these subjects. What I mean is that we should start thinking about what really matters, and to start caring more about that.
Ask yourself this: what is stressful for about school? Remembering which pen to mark your books with, you might say. Remembering to mark all your books, full stop. Planning lessons which stretch and engage all pupils, all the time, taking account of the different (and sometimes contradictory) needs of your PP, EAL and SEND pupils, perhaps. All of these things are stressful, but they are all stressful mainly because, in the back (/front) of your mind, is the knowledge that, at some point in the future, the smiling, innocent darlings in front of you are going to walk into an exam hall, turn over an exam paper and be expected to provide sufficient evidence that they have made at least the same amount of progress over the previous five years of schooling as the average pupil (whoever that is). And, moreover, if they don’t, it’s your fault.  And it isn’t just stressful for teachers. Many, many pupils, under our current system, are essentially told at the age of 16 that they have “failed” school. How can that possibly be right? A great teacher I know, George Stroud, said to me earlier this year: we have an examination system, not an education system. How can that be right?

However, that doesn’t get us very far. What will pupils leave school with, if they don’t walk away with a set of exam results? I think that we could do a lot worse than this: at the end of Year 11, all pupils take a test which assesses them on a varied set of skills which can actually be translated to things which will be useful to them in the future. I don’t profess to know exactly what this set of skills should be, but it might look something like:
  • Creative thinking
  • Analytical thinking
  • Literacy
  • Numeracy
  • Communication skills
  • Teamwork

You might disagree, or argue about what each of those things mean, but that level of detail can be ironed out. The important thing is that the set of skills is non-hierarchical and is reflective of who the pupil is and what they can do. It focuses and celebrates what they are good at. A 16-year old would know that they were pretty good at working in teams and being creative, but that they weren’t so great at analysing and communicating. And, equally as important, colleges, universities and employers would understand that too.

At this stage, you might very well ask why you should listen to any of this at all. I’m just some English teacher in Manchester. But, I did work for 4 years as a lawyer and for 5 years as a recruitment consultant before I became a teacher, and I sit on the Student Support and Access Committee at my old university, so I know something about the way people in the real world (or what constitutes the real world in the spheres of law, recruitment and higher education) thinks about exam results and how useful they are when making decisions about whether to admit or recruit someone. Which, frankly, is not very much.  

So, just imagine with me for a minute. Imagine that you could teach the subject that you love, in the way you want to teach it. Imagine being able to focus on giving pupils the knowledge and skills they need to actually really understand and be good at your subject, rather than just be good enough to get through an exam. Imagine if the focus of the entire process was on the individual pupil and helping them to become a better, more mature, more knowledgeable, more self-aware version of themselves, with an understanding of the meaning and value of the things they are good at. Imagine if no-one “failed” school. Imagine if large groups of pupils didn’t have to spend huge chunks of Year 11 being intervened upon because it looked like they might not make at least “average” progress. Just imagine.

It's probably just madness. But, as I said, it is in the air. Tracey knew, revolutions start with a whisper. Well, I’m whispering. Feel free to ignore it.

Friday, 11 November 2016

What the College of Teaching should do for me

Like Jose Mourinho, the College of Teaching needs some goals. The College has talked a good game and, I’m sure, has put in a lot of honest toil in pursuit of…well, whatever it is they’ve been pursuing. But the results have been, as far as I can see, pretty limited. The College’s stated aim of “championing higher standards” by “promoting the wider professional use of evidence to inform teaching practice and policy” is laudable, but this need is already being filled by bottom-up initiatives like ResearchEd and Northern Rocks which continue to go from strength to strength. So, I’ve got an idea: the role of the College of Teaching should be very simple – to make my life (as a teacher) easier.

A major problem with being a teacher is having to do lots of things which I’m not sure really make much positive difference to the children I teach, but not being in a position where I feel empowered enough to refuse to do them. And, I suspect, this goes for people in actual positions of power. Things get done so they can be seen to be done. Accountability has become king and being able to provide evidence for something has replaced a focus on actually doing the thing. Properly. On more than 4 hours sleep.

So, this is what I’d like the College of Teaching to do: 
  • Give the teaching profession a sense of itself and an understanding of its importance and power in society. Instead of giving teachers access to information which we can access ourselves in 10 minutes on the internet, teach us how to get our hands on the means to shape our own destinies, our own lives. 
  • There should be training for teachers, people who have actually been an adult in a classroom, to develop political or advisory careers so more people with experience of doing the job are making the decisions about how to do the job. 
  • There should be pressure brought to bear on the people who make those decisions to ensure that the education system is recognised as being too important to be left to blow in the wind of the political storm. 
  • There should be someone trying to make sure that there’s at least one newspaper headline a week along the lines of, “Teacher works really hard, quite often in their own time, trying to improve the lives of people other than themselves”, rather than the endless barrage of reports about falling standards and recruitment drain. 
  • There should be a celebration of the brilliant work which goes on every single day, in every single school, for which the people doing the actual work barely get a thank you (of which more, perhaps, another time). 
  • There should be a body working to make teachers feel good about themselves. And that body could be the College of Teaching.
And here’s one thing they could do to make a start with that immediately. Most schools have a marking and feedback policy which specifies how and how frequently books should be marked. Certainly the schools I’ve worked in all have. The College should announce a recommendation that every school’s marking and feedback policy be changed to this:

“There should be clear evidence that pupils and teachers have considered, and taken action on, pupil work on a regular basis”.

I know why I mark books. I understand why it’s important. I want my pupils to get better at what I’m teaching them. I suspect that most teachers are the same. And I suspect that most teachers would appreciate being trusted to provide feedback to their pupils in the manner which best suits them, the work being studied, the current workload of the teacher (and the pupils) and the nature of the feedback. Sometimes I’d like to give whole-class structured feedback on a piece of work. Sometimes it might make more sense to give detailed individual feedback to each pupil. I’d like to have the choice. What I do know is that, every time I read a piece of work, in fact practically every time I ask a pupil a question in class, I reflect and take action on it and try to do something about the mistakes and misconceptions I notice. And, because I understand that it is important that I am accountable for what I do, I’d be happy to provide evidence for that, because it would be easy: “Dear HoD, none of my class used quotes in their recent piece of work, so I’m going to focus on that next lesson. That ok with you?”. My teaching would improve and, I’m sure, my pupils (and my family) would benefit.

I don’t have anything against the idea of the College of Teaching. Quite the opposite in fact. If I hadn’t been so worried about how much time it would take up, I would have applied to be a Trustee over the summer. But, College of Teaching, there it is, my request to you is simple: your goal shouldn’t be to point me in the direction of some research papers; it should be to change my life. As anyone who has had to watch Manchester United play this season will tell you, Jose spent £200m and, essentially, has no idea where his goals are coming from. College of Teaching, I’ve just given you one, and it’s not cost you anything!