Monday, 17 December 2012

Barking up the Wrong Tree?

It would seem that everyone in education is continually looking for the silver bullet: that one initiative, that one approach, that one great idea, which will make everything better. Successive administrations appear to decide on their favourite countries and then try to cherry pick approaches that work there and bolt them on to the UK system.
But what if we are barking up the wrong tree entirely? And, more to the point, what if we are doing that deliberately because the truth is unpalatable?
Many people I know (and some I even like and respect), are forever banging on about 'Singapore Maths'. This approach to teaching mathematics is one based on mastery and mathematics results in Singapore are great. But are those results great because of the approach they take to teaching mathematics? Well, no.
When one looks at high performing jurisdictions around the world and tries to find comparators in the systems, we can see that the approaches taken in terms of pedagogy and curriculum are wide and varied. Yet, the results are high. There is certainly a correlation between Singapore's approach to teaching mathematics and its results, but it is not the causation.
So what is the common link?
There would appear to be only one thread that flows throughout all of the highest performing jurisdictions. It is not an approach. It is not the curriculum. It is not how much teachers are paid or the level of PD that they engage with.
The real common link is society's attitudes towards education.
But, you see, this is really not something that any UK government would like to admit. Because if it is the case, then the answer does not lie in a new DfE initiative or models of schooling or a national strategy. The answer lies in other departments. In the home office, in the justice system, in culture, in business.
It is not because the Singapore government take a mastery approach to mathematics learning that they are successuful, it is because the vast majority of society view education as vitally important and something that should be revered. They see teachers as high status professionals. They view learning as the route to fulfilment and prosperity.
This is evident time and again across high performing jurisdictions. It is because the model of society is one in which schooling is held in high esteem.
There are pockets of this attitude in the UK, particularly among Asian families. But as a whole, the UK society does not value education.
I cannot count over the years how many times I have had to deal with parents who feel they have no responsibility whatsoever for their child's learning and behaviour.
And behaviour.
This is the key.
In those societies that value education, classroom behaviour is much less extreme.
It's all about behaviour, dummy.
I recall, as a child, messing around in class. Hi-jinks, silliness. But one stern look from the teacher and we would get back on task. Or, horror of horrors, a letter home! My father would then make sure that messing about in class was not something I would do for quite some time.
But I regularly see and hear about occasions now of behaviour so extreme that it is nothing short of bullying a teacher. These children are not normalised, not socialised.
But what if we admitted that? Which government ever would or could?
It is far easier to blame the education system and tinker away at the edges than it is for a country to stop, look at itself and admit that something rotten has taken hold.
If we actually want education to get better in the UK, we need to make societal changes, but these take at least a generation.
And if you don't believe that something rotten has taken hold, ask a teacher friend if they would be willing to take a pay cut for guaranteed good behaviour and respect from all kids.

(JUST AN ADDITIONAL NOTE ON SINGAPORE:  The other thing that people always forget to mention when talking about the miracle that is Singapore maths results is that as a country it is nothing at all like England.  For a start, it's tiny, with only around 500 schools.  I often wonder how those results would compare to the top 500 schools in England.  Also, I'm not criticising the approach to mathematics, I happen to rather like it.  But we shouldn't kid oursleves - pedagogical and curriculum approach is a values decision.  Personally, I'm a constructivist and much prefer to teach mathematics that way.  There is loads of research to support constructivism.  But there is loads of research to support other approaches too.  We choose to teach in the way that we do for cultural reasons.)

Monday, 10 December 2012

Goodbye Britain

Everything. And by that I really do mean every single thing. Was better in the past.
How I adored the days when a drive to the coast would be preluded by hours and hours checking the car, filling up with coolant and oil, adjusting the tyre pressure and fiddling with the engine. Only, of course, to break down along the way just the same.
How I adored the days when TV consisted of just two channels, when the entire population would watch the same episode of Morecombe and Wise and talk about it the day after. (Of course, there was also ITV, but that was only for the 'common' children.)
How I adored the days when you would arrange to meet a friend for dinner, cinema, theatre, sports, dates or what-not and you simply had to turn up on time. No text messages about running late. No turning up at the wrong place and quickly sorting with a phonecall.
How I adored the days when, not only were your parents allowed to smack you in the street, but could also smack any other child who was being mischievous. When bank holiday Monday meant long hours sitting stationary on single carriageway A- and B- roads. When there was no such thing as health and safety, when children were allowed to play on badly made British swings and slides that would slice their legs on protruding shards of metal. How I adored the days when nothing worked. When loading a computer game took whole minutes and then didn't play anyway.
How I adored the days when VHS and Betamax battled for supremacy. When a trip to the cinema was like sitting in a flea pit. How I adored the days.
Nothing is better now. Nothing.
And how I adored the days when teachers were teachers and kids were kids. When it was normal to be clipped around the ear, when a teacher could call you a moron and your parents didn't try to sue for emotional damages. How I adored the days when messing about in class meant having the shit scared out of you by a mortar-boarded, cape adorning demon headmaster. How I adored the days when teachers told you stuff, told you what to do and you did it. And not just you, everyone. The days when ADHD was recognised for what it is – a whinging, irritating and badly behaved kid. How I adored the days when teachers were funny. When it was ok for a teacher to have a laugh with the kids and to take the piss out of them without some lily-livered, flaccid, middle-middle-class bleeding heart parent calling for them to be sacked.
How I adored the days before 'learning styles', 'personalised learning', 'student voice' and 'parent choice'. How I adored the days when schools were what they were – a place where you were lucky to go to, where it was your responsibility to learn. And your family would make sure you bloody well did. How I adored the days when my teachers wrote these words on my school reports: "as Mark opens his mouth to sing, the other boys leave the room", "I have met boys with less talent in art than Mark, but none who managed to be so consistently bad", "One year without being excluded? How about it? There's a good chap."
How I adored the days.
How I adored the days when, as a teacher, I could have a laugh. With colleagues we would send kids to another classroom to ask for a 'long weight (wait)', we would play the 'stand behind the ugliest kid game' in exam halls, we would go off on elaborate stories in lessons, we would ignore inspectors and government initiative. How I adored the days when we had spunk.
Nothing is better now. What has become of the profession? I continually meet these po-faced, weak spirited, uninspiring teachers. These young, fresh-faced wimps straight from college. They believe all the diktat. Do as they are told. Stay out of trouble.
How I adored the days when teachers were strong. When teachers were professional, they knew about learning and got on with the job and did not bow to idiotic policy makers.
How I adored the days. But I guess I am ancient now. I guess that what this new Britain wants, in all its X-Factor consuming, male-grooming, ladette form is to be controlled. To be nannied by the State and to be numb to any notion of having to think for oneself. I guess what this new Britain wants is a society that thinks there is no difference between private and public behaviour, that it is ok to boo and jeer at anyone, that there is no boundary between adult and child and that it is perfectly ok to raise your kids to be rude. Yes, I am ancient now. But I'm not sure that what we have now is what we had dreamed.
Everything was better in the past. Goodbye Britain.