On Marking, @Krisboulton and why I do not contribute to the 'debate'

Sometimes the distinction between being a player in your own life and a knight or bishop in a script written by someone else can be difficult to discern. I’ll illustrate my own experiences of this a little later. This caveat aside, I have nothing whatsoever against the oft publicized work of the teachers at Michaela Community School, King Solomon Academy, et all. From what I can discern, this is a group of very bright young teachers who are questioning orthodoxies, trying to imagine better ways of doing things and who are actually modelling ideas that may do something about the absurdity of teacher workload. As they kick over the statues, it is impossible for any semi-retired iconoclast not to find himself nodding in approval (even as he notes that the stone shins being kicked are, in fact, his own).

One of these teachers, Kris Boulton, quite reasonably took issue in the Sunday Times recently with a poor sentence of mine that he claims I wrote in an article in October 2012. (This is pleasingly certain of itself, oddly specific and also quite wrong: it was actually in a book written some time in 2009 and this matters for a couple of reasons – firstly, articles may be designed to provoke, teaching manuals generally exist to help; secondly, implying academic superiority and then promptly getting the facts all wrong might be taken to be a poor example of our command of the disciplines at which we are suggesting our relative eminence).

The sentence in question is this: under the heading ‘Marking’ in the last and very much the weakest chapter of ‘How to Teach’ (on page 213,which Kris might be able to tell you himself had he read it) is, “Make no mistake: this is the most important thing you do as a teacher”.

It is no longer 2009. I am not sure what I believe now. But my views have moved on. Just as the Kris’s must have in the seven long years that have passed since it was written.

It is then followed by something I wish I’d never written.

“You can turn up hung-over every morning, wearing the same creased pair of Farahs as last week, with hair that looks like a bird has slept in it, then spend most of the lesson talking at the kids about how wonderful you are, but mark their books with dedication and rigour and your class will fly.”

I would have hoped that people could locate the comedic intent in this fairly easily: it’s not as if it isn’t clearly signaled. But this quote has become a staple of staff training days and has been used, I’m told, to make overworked teachers feel guilty that they are not marking enough. I refer back here to the opening sentence: sometimes we are not the king or queen of our imaginings, but are just a rook in someone else’s game.

Those people who write books (I’ve just finished my tenth (a treatise on how power works to silence dissent) and am a short way through my eleventh) will tell you that the last chapter is often the weakest as you just want the damn thing dead; I remember being aware, while writing it in 2009, that the chapter was weak and that I was risking ridicule by publishing something so wafery on such an important subject as assessment. I would ask anyone reading this who is ever subject to a member of SMT producing this quote at a training day to quietly inform them that the author of this paragraph is clearly a mildly capable humorist, but this is not in any way a comprehensive take on his views on assessment. I have these but don’t take myself seriously enough to share them.

‘How to Teach’ is just the stuff that used to work for me a decade or so ago. It is overdue a revised edition: for instance, there is a whole section in it about what a cool role model Rolf Harris is that doesn’t play quite as well as it used to. But I wonder why it so rattles a particular version of younger teachers. Perhaps it is because it remains mystifyingly popular and is a set text at the university education departments that certain associated powers wish to discontinue; perhaps because it is still held, by a few, to be a useful counterpoint to a vastly more influential book, which is approved of by current orthodoxies and which asserts the control pedagogies of a non teacher from many thousands of miles away as being the sole acceptable way of doing things; perhaps it is that it is an emblem of a mildly unorthodox approach to teaching that has it labelled as being representative of a now discredited previous ‘orthodoxy’ that was never sufficiently organised even to have existed. But the book is not in any way aligned to, approved of, nor even at all well thought of in prior (or current) (and certainly in future) Ofsted circles. It was broadly iconoclastic in intent, and this section sums up its view:

“Teaching has become, over the past decade, a career in which sometimes it seems the only quality that is regarded as being of any worth is conformity. It may be that the school you work in insists on just such a paleness, and that what they want is a series of drab, identikit automatons delivering lessons in exactly the same manner and naming this stultifying blandness ‘professionalism’. Do not let this pale version of what a teacher should be, be the thing that looks at you in the mirror every morning. There are times to do what you are told, (perhaps). But there are also many more times when you should routinely ignore the facile instructions of others and find out yourself by experimenting.”

“Being a great teacher is about finding your own way with things. And you don’t discover new worlds by remaining safe, doing it by some turgid textbook that comes with the promise that, if you follow it, you will be as mediocre as the person who wrote it. Kids do not want or need identikit teachers. They want, require and deserve you to be brilliant, and you do not get to be brilliant by following the rules.”

It seems that Kris and his colleagues and associates are (much like the generation of educators before them) experimenting, chucking out the old rules, asking profound questions - and good for them for doing so - but the tepid obsession with discrediting ‘How to Teach’ and holding its author up as representative of how bad things were in the olden days would be taken more seriously if it was expressed in well researched writing that does not mistake repetition of the term ‘cognitive overload’ for profound understanding of the form. (Sometimes in showing that we have read a book or two we actually reveal that we have read a book. Or two.) Such educators might also do well to examine their own cognitive biases: an example of which may be found in Kris’s article:

1. Identify a left wing educator you think might be a poor thinker.
2. Remember the one line quote you have read of his.
3. Find that this quote proves your theory.
4. Exclude all other evidence.

There are those educators who enjoy petty disputation for its own sake and terming this pointless white noise debate. Not me. There are educators who enjoy being ‘disagreeable’. There are those who are perhaps rightly assured that tomorrow belongs to them, and there are those who spend rather too much time celebrating each other because they are bright enough to recognise that brain gym is not real.

My next book ‘Rules for Mavericks’ makes mention of the scene that celebrates itself. “We can tend towards being so in awe of the ‘idea’ that we form a theocracy around it, elevating it to the status of deity, and regarding the various in-clubs of those who are touched by the adoration of the ‘idea’ to be enlightened above all others (whom we might be tempted to regard, from the heady heights of our club of peers/devotees, as rather poor examples of the species).”

“Columnist, Francisco Dao, has an intriguing and exceptionally well-expressed take on those groups for whom the ‘idea’ has attained the status of unquestionable godhead: he regards the cult or club of the idea to be more an expression of adherence to blind norms than one of divergence from them. ‘The problem with this group is that many of them are characterized not by a healthy desire to learn, but rather an unhealthy desire to believe.’ He goes on to suggest that the believers in the ‘idea’ are basically those who (secretly) want to do what they are told while pretending they are the direct opposite of this character type.”

Now I like ideas. I recall something another educationalist wrote recently about preferring evidence to ideas and realizing that that was where we differed. I admit to preferring ideas to evidence; particularly, when the evidence always seems to confirm the cognitive biases of one side of the argument. But tend towards thinking that it is important with ideas that you have more than just the one.

If any group of people really feel the one-sided nature of current educational ‘debate’ would be greatly improved by the plunging a borderline unemployable English teacher who doesn’t want to play into it against his will, then I would ask that, first of all, they up their game a little and stop rashly and erroneously asserting their intellectual superiority based on little more concrete foundations than their own cultured and nurtured overconfidence. I would also ask that they consider the reasons that I do not contribute to this ‘debate’.

Firstly, I do not have the time. I am a freelancer. Aside from being an associate of Independent Thinking Ltd, I belong to no institution, have the support of no formal or informal political organization or network and receive no wage cheque. While writing this, I am not doing the work for which I am paid: I am not looking at how primary schools might maintain a vibrant English curriculum at the same time as dealing with the dunderheaded grammar test; I am not preparing my speech on what high expectations mean in practice for a group of university students; I am not rewriting an English curriculum for a school so that it incorporates interleaving and other aspects of Bjork’s research.

Secondly, I do not enter the ‘debate’ because, to quote Laughing Len, “Everybody knows that the fight is fixed.” The channels of the ‘debate’ are entirely dominated by agencies, networks or individuals who take a line that is broadly approved of or even sponsored by the current government. Again, I salute the achievement and energy of such agencies; I even agree with some of what they have achieved (un-graded observations in particular). But as a tribal left-winger who might argue that some of this debate subsists on the deliberate misrepresentation of things that never were and that much of it is laughing at one skewed version of recent history in order to reinstate another overly romantic version of something older (and that there are dark reasons behind this), my voice would be subject to the same sneering condescension that others more brave than me have enjoyed. I respect those people brave enough to take issue with it, but have no stomach for entering a ring with few spindly corner-men in order to throw a series of limp punches against a well funded and belligerent army. It is a decent piece of advice, I think, to examine your opponent’s capabilities in some detail before throwing the first punch.

Finally, I am uninterested in wasting my remaining days in ham-fisted assassinations of the work of others: this may be taken as a sign of a distinctly working class version of ‘character’, it might even be long overdue maturity, or it may be that I have never been remotely interested in chess and, in particular, in being a minor piece moved by another’s somewhat unskilled hand.

I am utterly certain that the tangible achievement that will make Kris and his colleagues disputed authorities will appear, and think it important that younger voices react against voices of the past, but you win an argument with that past not merely by asserting your superiority on the basis of having read two Daniel Willingham books, but by doing better, longer lasting, more well thought of work than that which was done previously. With the exception of David Didau’s latest book, I am still waiting for that work; I will be the first to applaud when it appears.

Added Wed, 16 Mar 2016 08:55

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