Should Traditional Teachers Join the Revolution?


In my last post I expressed my reservations about the current state of traditionalist blogging and the clamour for a revolution among many of my contemporaries. Some subsequent exchanges about this topic have furthered my thinking and in light of these discussions this post asks should traditional teachers join the revolution?

My observation is that revolutionary traditionalists make the following arguments that justify a 'call to arms':

  • Progressive pedagogy is not effective
  • The educational establishment overwhelmingly favours progressive pedagogy
  • The educational establishment is organised and uses a range of methods to disseminate progressive pedagogy throughout the education system
  • The vast majority of teachers adhere to this progressive orthodoxy

In contrast to many revolutionary trads I view the educational establishment as a mix of vested interests (CEOs, consultants, gurus and bureaucrats) whose dysfunction is caused by a lack of coherence about pretty much everything. While I acknowledge the existence of innately progressive factions (e.g some Science subject associations) within the educational establishment I think it is unhelpful to portray the establishment as synoymous with 'progressives', 'the Blob' or conversely 'Govians' or 'neotrads'. Ignoring the existence of entrenched groups that wield power over schools allows these groups to a) avoid criticism for the current state of affairs and b) define themselves as 'anti-establishment' and an alternative to, not part of, the status quo.

The only commonality I observe within the educational establishment is that its members operate at distance from teachers and the day to day goings on in schools. Prior to 2015 I might have agreed with the notion that progressives within the educational establishment were very effective at influencing teachers and schools through various conduits but my professional experience has changed: now there is no money which means no progressive consultants, Ofsted have crucially lost interest in pedagogy so far less attention is given to it by managers, only a few of my colleagues are exposed to any pedagogy via the educational press and even fewer are members of a subject association. Hardly anyone uses social media, which is broadly considered a waste of time, for professional development.

Progressivism would, of course, still cause difficulties for traditional teachers if one accepted the premise that progressivism is already orthodox within schools. However my experience is that very few of colleagues make pedagogical choices on the basis of ideology or efficacy, they do what they do to get through the day. Effectively each teacher presents a personal mishmash of entrenched pedagogical styles. It is immensely difficult to pursuade colleagues to break their particular pattern because the pattern is a coping strategy. Here in the South West some teacher training providers noticeably favour progressive pedagogy but, despite this training, I observe a short lived effect as NQTs quickly develop their own mishmash of teaching styles in order to cope with the demands of the job.

In summary my position is as follows:

  • Progressive pedagogy is not effective
  • The educational establishment has no coherent position on anything
  • Since 2015 reform and budget cuts have made it much harder for progressives within the educational establishment to disseminate their ideas to the teaching profession
  • The vast majority of teachers ignore both pedagogical ideology and efficacy, teaching methods are chosen on the basis of getting through the day without generating extra work or stress.

Should traditional teachers join the revolution?

Despite some differences I concur with revolutionary traditionals who consider the educational establishment to be damaging. However, the proposed revolution will not be a revolution when the only target is progressivism and not the educational establishment as a whole; that some traditionalists have actually embraced existing sections of the educational establishment that are keen on market based reform or command and control management is a cause for concern. Given that the majority of my earlier work criticises such groups I will be unequivocal about my opinions here: the reformers and the managers rose meteorically through the education system when the system actually endorsed progressivism and traditional teachers were hounded by Ofsted. Reformers and managers didn't bang the drum for traditionalism then and only do so now because their methodology looks slightly more appealing with some token traditionalism sprinkled on top.

In conclusion if you're the sort of traditionalist that thinks targets and compliance inspections aren't going to benefit the traditionalist cause then avoid this revolution like the plague.

 


The Traditionalist Revolution: Apologia

When I started teaching in 2007 it wasn't uncommon for teachers to be criticised by the then educational establishment for using traditional teaching methods. Teaching from the front was said to bore students causing them to switch off and not learn anything or inciting them to behave poorly in class. I've never bought into this reasoning and books like It's your time you're wasting by Frank Chalk or Andrew Old's Scenes from the battleground blog provided reassurance to my younger self that other teachers felt the same way.

Inspired by Andrew, Winston Smith, Inspector Gadget and others I began to interact online anonymously describing my experiences and thoughts about the education system. Online I was free to blog and debate with those who weren't used to being debated with about the cultural orthodoxy they sought to impose on teachers. This juxtaposed with day to day things like being asked to attend mentoring meetings with a behaviour consultant for following school policy on detentions; blogging was a form of catharsis.

The educational landscape has changed a lot since 2007. Blogging and online teacher activism has been an important driver for some really positive developments e.g Ofsted ceasing to grade individual lessons or advocate a particular pedagogy. Most of the traditional bloggers from a decade ago are no longer anonymous, some have published books, some have opened schools, some are quoted favourably by education ministers. Thanks to those ministers there is now less money available for schools which, in my experience, means less funding channelled towards progressive education consultants. My point is that traditionalism and it's advocates are in the ascendancy.

I am older and hopefully wiser. Having learnt through personal experience and observation of some brilliant colleagues here are five principle bits of advice I'd offer to my younger self when entering the profession:

  • Never say, or imply, to anyone that you (or your school!) are better than your colleagues, doing so makes people think you are an arse. Most people don't want anything to do with an arse.
  • There are no magic bullets in education. I've noticed that when someone (usually an arse) claims to have found a quick fix careful analysis of the facts reveals gaming, selection or unsustainable practice. Genuine school improvement takes years.
  • Some people are unreasonable and/or incredibly nasty. If you have to interact with them do so professionally and for no longer than absolutely necessary. Trying to change unreasonable or incredibly nasty people is a waste of your precious energy and time.
  • Teaching will not give your life meaning. I still struggle with this a lot, I am still easily provoked by certain individuals and I find it difficult to switch off compromising my relationships with the people who genuinely add meaning to life.
  • If you get into management don't be a shit funnel.

It is with these five principles in mind that I turn to the burgeoning 'traditional revolution' led by some well known colleagues on social media. Most of what I've read contains some intriguing ideas and methods that, as a traditional teacher, ought to be of interest yet something grates and has done for some time. I've tried very hard to look beyond it but I find the majority of current, traditionalist blogging communicates ideas in a manner that is provocative, self-aggrandising and singularly unwilling to consider English schooling as a system comprised of many parts that all effect each other.

So in order to avoid betraying the principles of behaviour I've found most useful I will not be joining the 'revolution' or whatever it is my traditionalist contemporaries think they are doing. I very much doubt this will bother anyone, at worst I imagine this blog will be 'one for a file' or I'll be labelled an 'enemy of promise' or 'prog' – if that is the case so be it.


End of the Road

The Long Walk is a novel by Richard Bachman (aka Stephen King). The story revolves around the contestants of a gruelling walking contest set in an alternative totalitarian United States.

 

Each “Walker” must maintain a speed of at least four miles per hour; if he drops below that speed for 30 seconds, he receives a warning. If a walker slows down after receiving three warnings he is “ticketed”; it soon dawns on the reader that “buying a ticket” means being shot dead by the soldiers supervising The Long Walk. Walkers are shot immediately for attacking the soldiers or trying to leave the walk and warnings are given for minor violations such as interfering with other participants. The event is run by a character known as “The Major” whom the Walkers initially hold in awe and respect but start to ridicule as the novel progresses.

To me The Long Walk has always been analogous to the teaching profession. To “buy a ticket” is to quit, as many of my fellow Walkers have, because teaching just doesn’t seem worth it anymore. I’m not buying a ticket just yet but this blog and the @leonardjamesuk Twitter account are going on an indefinite hiatus. I’d like to thank everyone who has taken the time to converse with me on Twitter. Special thanks to @oldandrewuk who is probably the most responsible for my modest tally of blog hits and @emc2andallthat for tweeting links to pretty much everything I’ve written.

It’s been fun – see you in the real world.


The School Policy INSET

A cursory scan of social media will quickly reveal school managers complaining about sustainability, increased class sizes, a reduced curriculum and staff cuts. In education money isn't stretching as far as it used to but should we worry more about this or the financial nous of those responsible for spending it? Our schools are gripped by a management paradigm that encourages ineffienciency, waste and stupidity – there can be few less obvious manifestations of this than the school policy INSET.

The school policy INSET is where the body of staff are bought together to reach a collective agreement about some aspect of school life. This might be about something important, for example the school behaviour policy, but is more likely to be about really tedious bollocks like the school mission statement.

The first problem here is the idea that a large group of teachers can come to a collective agreement on anything seems ridiculous and school policy INSETS are inevitably the metaphorical death knell of anyones hopes for something like zero tolerance on mobile phones in lessons. Managers are also under the delusion that getting teachers to work in groups ranking platitudinous terms like 'resilience' and 'honesty' or coming up with a sentence to define the school community is necessary, interesting or even motivating:

Head of PSHE & Christian ethos: 'Yes but what does the word community mean to us? How could we define community at St. Lucifer's?'

Me: 'Here's a dictionary'

Yet the sheer ridiculousness of being asked to brainstorm catchy names for the five school values (someone suggested 'Five knuckle shuffle') in this manner is overshadowed by the enormous cost of doing it. In October 2014 the mean salary of a classroom teacher in an academy converter school was £36,500, if one assumes that teachers work a 37.5 hour week (yes I know) then the mean hourly rate is £18.71. Therefore getting one hundred averagely paid teachers in a room for one hour of school policy INSET, or indeed any INSET, costs the best part of two thousand pounds.

The longer the INSET the higher the cost. A former employer of mine sent all 47 teachers to do a school policy INSET for a day (5 hours) at a not inexpensive hotel in the Cotswolds. The fruits of this collective endeavour was five sentences of platitudinous drivel about excellence that formed the school mission statement using up 235 man hours at a cost of circa £4396.85 not including venue hire, lunch, and stacks of post it notes.

It is nice to feel involved but one would think that a manager with a 50K plus salary might be capable of writing publicity materials more efficiently in these times of financial peril. However as branding becomes ever more important in the educational quasi market it doesn't matter if thousands of pounds worth of man hours are wasted because, after all, teachers are salaried and can always catch up with their marking at home.

 


Thoughts on Nick Gibb’s Purpose of Education Speech

One of my biggest frustrations is that no-one in charge of education can satisfactorily articulate what they the think the core purpose of schooling is. Micheal Gove, for example, desired a highly qualified workforce delivering a liberal education whilst simultaneously legislating for an unqualified one that minds children for free. More recently Nicky Morgan said that schools exist to boost the economy whilst simultaneously enabling dysfunctional children to 'get on in life' – the services best qualified to do this have been cut to, apparently, boost the economy.

This duality of purpose causes a lot of problems for teachers as it encourages those with particular vested interests to enter schools and encourage the prioritisation of their particular aspiration at the expense of others. For example a key worker may seek to prioritise a children's socialisation at the expense of academic outcomes while an Ofsted inspector may do the opposite – try pleasing both! With this in mind I feel a sense of profound disappointment at the latest offering about the purpose of education from Schools minister Nick Gibb. Here is a choice excerpt from Nick's recent speech at the education reform summit (1):

“Education is the engine of our economy, it is the foundation of our culture, and it’s an essential preparation for adult life. Delivering on our commitment to social justice requires us to place these 3 objectives at the heart of our education system.”

“We all have a responsibility to educate the next generation of informed citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said, and instilling in them a love of knowledge and culture for their own sake. But education is also about the practical business of ensuring that young people receive the preparation they need to secure a good job and a fulfilling career, and have the resilience and moral character to overcome challenges and succeed.”

If education and the teaching profession in particular are being pulled by vested interests, damagingly, in conflicting directions then we desperately need one core reason for being. Gibb has come up with something so convoluted it ceases to mean anything distinct at all; his three objectives are so broad that there is no social malady for which a child's schooling can't be blamed and no reason why any vested interest cannot legitimately seek to interfere with a schools work.

References

(1) Gibb, N. (2015) The purpose of education. Available from https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-purpose-of-education. Last accessed: 22 July 2015.

 


The Long Walk 2nd Anniversary Scrapbook

My name is Leonard James, I am a secondary Science teacher at a comprehensive school in England. I have been teaching for eight years and have been promoted to middle leadership during this time. The Long Walk is an outlet for my personal concerns and frustrations about British education. Here I outline said concerns and provide links to the archive of blogposts.

The educational establishment

A circus sits at the summit of the British education systems managemental hierarchy. It is a toxic mix of empire building CEOs, consultants, gurus, bureaucrats and politicians. They are divorced from, and therefore ignorant about, the everyday business of schools. They manage from afar via endless specifications, targets and compliance checking. The following series of blogs highlight some of the unintended consequences of this management style:

Task Saturation

Educational Platitudes #4: ‘..we’ve all taught a crap lesson’

Claim your College: Three questions from a sceptic

Thoughts from the Frontline: Stress

Verbal Irony: Nicky Morgan writes about government reform

Mixed Bag: The Paradixical Tenure of Education Secretary Gove

Educational Platitudes #1: ‘Kayliegh wants to do well’

What do Ofsted have to say about Science curriculums?

Ofsted Data Dashboards: Spot the Difference

Methods for Attaining League Table Altitude

%5 A*-C inc EM

Mandatory Optimism

ERSC Miss the Elephant in the Room

Minions of Ofsted Part 1: High Stakes Lesson Observations

Minions of Ofsted Part 2: Learning Walks

Minions of Ofsted Part 3: The Consultants

The New Ofsted Data Dashboards Reward Science Departments who Game the Examination System

School choice, competition and the Free Market

The problems described above are exacerbated by personalities within the educational establishment who can’t get along. Some members of the educational establishment are monetarists (mainly CEOs and some politicians) pushing for an education system based on free market principles. The following posts describe how teachers and their work are or might be affected by this sort of thinking:

On the DfE Academies and Autonomy Report Part 1: Poor Methodology

Educational Platitudes #3: ‘aiming for excellence..’

On the Staffroom Debate

Educational Platitudes #2: ‘I’m passionate about…’

Injecting Competition: A response to Gabriel Sahlgren and Julian Le Grand

Teaching is a McJob Part 1: Low Pay

Teaching is a McJob Part 2: Low Prestige

Teaching is a McJob Part 3: No Training

Progressive education

Many of those within the educational establishment (who are described by Michael Gove as ‘the blob’) reject liberal education in favour of child centered ‘progressive’ pedagogy. This pedagogy undermines the authority of adults, has contributed to a national behaviour crisis and is detrimental to learning:

On the October Twitterstorm: “No Excuses” Charters

On the Gove Rogue Meme

A Response to Mitra Part 1: Education and Employability

A Response to Mitra Part 2: Classroom Pedagogy

A Response to Mitra Part 3: The Past

Science education

The following posts are specifically about Science education. This wonderful subject has been routed by endless change, poorly targeted investment and a haemorrhaging of in school expertise.

Practical Work in Science Part 1: Three Reasons Why ISAs Must Die

Practical Work in Science Part 2: Beyond the blundering headlines

Practical Work in Science Part 3: I’m actually paying for this!

Miscellaneous

Meet the parents…


Task Saturation

 

'Task saturation is that moment when you have way too much to do and no where near the time, tools, or resources to get it all done, and you crack. You know what I’m talking about. You have five customers in line, two phones on hold, your kid’s teacher just called to say Tommy’s sick and your manager is waiting for a report that’s an hour late. Slowly, insidiously, it takes over. You start to shut down, or you start to panic — you’re task saturated. So what do you do?'

– Jim 'Murph' Murphy

Everyone will have experienced the feeling when they are so busy that everything becomes too much, they become overwhelmed and are unable to carry on. Common remedies to this can include taking a walk to clear your head or putting the kettle on. This is hardly a big deal if it happens occasionally but a task saturated workforce is the norm in a lot of schools and we know this because a lot of teachers ending up quitting, which is an extreme form of 'shutdown', because of unmanageable workload.

Teachers who don't end up quitting often cope with task saturation by taking a 'first things first' approach or they focus exclusively on one thing. Both these behaviours involve doing excluding certain tasks, say marking, in favour of others such as planning or report writing. The task saturation is harder to spot because the teachers seem busy but the long term effects are undesirable as a backlog of work in one particular area is allowed to build up.

In the absence of any meaningful action on workload I would suggest that there are a few things we can do to reduce the negative consequences of task saturation in schools:

1) Get the students into school wide common routines and have systems in place to quickly deal with students who choose not to cooperate – just sorting out lesson transitions in secondary schools by smart starting in the same way would give teachers a bit less to think about during transitions.

2) In busy hospitals surgeons cross check pertinent information with another colleague before operating on a patient vastly reducing the risk of some of the catastrophic 'you removed the wrong kidney' type blunders you hear about from time to time. In schools cross checking information and making sure there is agreement on the schools position before a difficult conversation or an important decision is made is helpful.

3) It is hardly a big secret that unmanageable workload is a big issue in education. What doesn't help are 'minion of Ofsted' type managers whose personal remit extends to little more than stating the obvious. Task saturated teachers need people to step in and get their hands dirty which is far more useful than some git sticking their head round the door and blaming them for not having time to do their job.

Now these things are not difficult to do but require a cultural shift in attitudes towards management in education. If we spent money on increasing the capacity of school systems to ride and/or react to surges in workload instead of paying increasing numbers of people to inspect them we'd do better and have less teachers quitting because of workload.

A very interesting article about task saturation by former fighter pilot Jim Murphy can be found here.