Does Teacher Training Know Too Much?

Question: What happens when you call a cup, a cup?

Answer: It stops being any number of things that it could have been:  a hat, a dragon’s nose, a weapon, a drum, a shoe, etc, etc.

This morning, I had a blazing argument slash friendly chat with colleagues in the staffroom over this very point. We weren’t originally talking about cups though; we were talking about teacher training. In light of the fact that so many schools are failing to hire the required staff, it quickly became apparent that many teachers believe in competencies; the idea that there is a pre-defined list of things that a good teacher should or could be able to do.

I disagree with this position, for the same reason that I think you shouldn’t go round calling a cup a cup. As soon as you begin to codify ‘good’ teaching, you effectively limit the possibilities of what good teaching could be. Every step towards definition closes a door of possibility. The dangers of this are twofold. First, it works against a culture of innovation and second, it establishes a culture of deficit and insecurity. Think about it for a minute: if there is a definite list slash criteria that a ‘good’ teacher should adhere to, anyone entering the profession is immediately faced with a list of things they cannot do or may not be able to do.

This, surely is crippling. It’s no wonder that schools are struggling to attract teachers, when the expectations are so restrictive. It’s not a question of standards – obviously, teachers should be aiming for excellence and competence – it’s a question of approach. Do we know what we are asking new teachers to step into? And are we choking their potential before it’s had a chance to flourish?

Exploring the unknown unknown

Too much of Initial Teacher Training (ITT) seems to be hung up on what we can call ‘the known knowns’, the things we know to work or not work, as proven by experience or research. Whatever. The known unknowns are slightly more interesting; ie: the things we know we don’t know, such as whether a skills-based curriculum is better than a knowledge-based curriculum, or whether PBL is better than a linear scheme of work for fostering student engagement.

My argument here is that our energy is best spent contemplating the unknown unknowns; the things we never even realised we didn’t know that we might one day discover. The things that might revolutionise our ideas and lead to unpredictable successes in the future. If we accept the unknown, it changes the realms of possibility. Once upon a time, humans believed ourselves to be the centre of the universe, placing ourselves atop a ludicrous and lofty metaphysical throne. Then Galileo came along with his home-made telescope and discovered that we are floating in one of trillions of galaxies. This simultaneously dethroned us while opening up new realms of possibility regarding space and the universe. Rather than naval-gazing and wondering how we came to be so amazing, humans could finally start contemplating the awesome mysteries of the great unknowns. With trillions of galaxies out there, it becomes frankly stupid to position yourself as anything but an explorer.

So too with teaching? I think so. I often tell people that, in my eyes, I am not a teacher seeking some preset goal of pedagogic perfection but am in fact undergoing ongoing action research. And the more I know, the more I don’t know. Questions foster questions and the the grappling with new ideas is what fuels my development. Like Galileo, surely our innovation should be fuelled by curiousity and innovation?

Case in point: skateboarding. Bear with me. See, the skateboarding community is an excellent example of a learning community that feeds itself with its own curiousity over the unknown. There was a time when no-one ever made a skateboard jump with their feet, while moving. Then, one day, someone, in a moment of inspired, imaginative innovation did it. The ‘ollie’ was born. This was then fed back into the community, and new skaters took it and tweaked it, spinning the board (a ‘shove-it’) or flipping the board (a ‘kick flip’) or making it jump front first (a ‘nollie’). All of these moves were, before the ollie was born, part of an unknown unknown – beyond the realms of possibility.

Now, you have a catalogue of moves that a new skater in 2015 is aware of and can learn, but the possibilities are still infinite. The tricks keep coming because skaters aren’t happy with an inventory of moves passed on from some predefined canon of manoeuvres.

Can you imagine if this is what teaching was like? If new teachers were stepping into a community of innovation fuelled by curiousity, informed by but not limited by the past? It would change everything. I’ve said in previous posts that the human brain is designed to innovate – why not embrace this and start all training right there? Explore the knowns as a means of exposing the unknowns. Mystical.

So, does experience matter?

At this point, you may be wondering if experience holds any relevance if the job of a new addition to a community is to explore and invent, rather than to simply gain mastery of existing skills. Good question. I have an anecdote that might be useful.

In a recent interview lesson a prospective art teacher presented the kids with the task of designing a set for a theatrical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s ‘The BFG’. Where do you start, he asked them. And of course, he was met with blank stares. He then proceeded to blindfold the kids and started reading ‘The BFG’ alongside music, asking them to draw instinctively as he read. Then, he removed the blindfold and talked through what they had drawn, cutting out the shapes and fixing them together in a 3D diorama. This was the first draft of the theatre set.

Brilliant, isn’t it? In 15 minutes, this guy had opened doors to unknown creative possibilities, using his expertise to make sense of innovative experiments. His mastery was guiding innovation, not stifling it. (Coincidentally, he wasn’t a teacher.)

Ultimately, we need to remove the barbed wire of expectation from ITT. Perhaps then teachers, new and not-so-new, might feel free to explore their profession and make innovations for the benefit of the teaching community at large. Something to think about.

-Unseen Flirtations

Beyond Blame: Understanding ‘bad’ behaviour

Activity 1: Think of the last time you got upset at a student. I mean really upset. What happened? What did they do? What did you do? Did you issue some kind of punishment? A detention? A lecture? Did you try to mend their ways? How? Did it work? And most importantly of all, why did you take that particular course of action? What was really going on?

Well, two things were really going on. First, you were assigning blame. You believed that the student in question chose (on some level) to behave how they did and therefore could have chosen to behave otherwise. This frustrated you no end, especially seeing that by now, they should be able to make the right behavioural choices to meet the super-objective of getting through school.

Second, you were attempting to modify their behaviour. In that terse and eloquent speech you delivered, eyes locked in fury, you were doing all you could to make that kid realise the error of their ways. You knew that they could make the right behavioural choices, so you were encouraging them to remember their wrong-doing and fix it next time. My first question to you is this: how useful is a belief in blame if you’re trying to modify undesirable behaviour? Tricky stuff.

Activity 2: Imagine the future.

Imagine checking your pigeon hole for next year’s timetable.

Imagine checking your pigeon hole for next year’s timetable and finding detailed class profiles.

Imagine if these profiles offered information on not simply academic progress, but behavioural limitations.

Imagine if these limitations were based on infallible scientific evidence.

Imagine if the nuances of human behaviour have been neuroscientifically deciphered. Imagine if we had a detailed understanding of which parts of the brain were responsible for which behaviours. Imagine if every single one of us came with a detailed neurological map of chemical balances, environmental influences and genetic codings that fully explained our behaviours in a way that was as easy to read as the colour of our eyes. Imagine if we regarded behaviour and impulse in the same way we currently regard allergies and medical conditions. Imagine if we didn’t blame a student for being distracted, or belligerent, or disruptive. Imagine if we didn’t praise a student for being hard working, or polite, or calm, or responsive to feedback. Carol Dweck has already taught us that we shouldn’t praise students for ‘being good’ or ‘being clever’. Imagine if we didn’t praise them for having a growth mindset?

Imagine if that future was now. Because it sort of is.

Activity 3: Google ‘neuroscience human behaviour’. Even a cursory glance at page one of the results will reveal compelling evidence that behaviour is a complex balance of genetic disposition, chemical balances, developmental trackings and environmental influences. We’ve come a long way from attempting to exorcise demons out of people prone to fits of physical spasms; we now treat them for epilepsy. And controversial or not, we know that the administration of certain drugs can suppress some disruptive behaviours in children. We even have a column on our aforementioned class lists for behavioural and social development issues, right alongside the column for Special Educational Needs. We understand that factors beyond conscious control may be responsible for different behaviours, desirable or not.

But do we care? Think back to the last time you got upset at a student, now add to it all of the frustrating conversations you’ve had over the past year. All the end-of-movie-courtroom speeches you’ve delivered about kids throwing away their futures. All the treacly see-saws over homework submission, or lack of. All the raised volume verbal beat downs you’ve administered in the attempt to get some kid to realise the damage their behaviour has caused. Why have you done this?

In the final chapters of his excellent book on the hidden machinations of the human brain, ‘Incognito’, David Eagleman highlights the concept of  ‘blameworthiness’ in society’s efforts to respond to criminal activity. Blameworthiness, he argues, is what the legal system tends to lean towards in its delivery of justice. To what extent can an individual can be ‘blamed’ for their actions? He then argues that a neuroscientific approach to behaviour makes this a redundant debate. Would you ‘blame’ someone with no legs for being unable to kick a ball?

Rather than ‘blameworthiness’, he suggests that a better focus might be the ‘modifiability’ of criminal types. Can they be altered just enough to make them socially safe, without the need for complete removal from society at large? This, in short, is the impulse behind rehabilitation and corrective incarceration, rather than simple imprisonment or, in the most extreme scenarios, execution.

The good news is that as educators, we seem to believe in modifiability. Think back again to that list of frustrating interactions you have had this year. If you really, truly believed in blame as the primary factor, you wouldn’t have even wasted your breath. Like the legal systems of old (and recent, actually), you would have simply assessed the extent of the crime and issued a fitting punishment. And if the crime was particularly abhorrent (let’s say, forgetting to put the lid back on a tube of Pritt-Stick) then you simply would have removed that child from your class forever, for the benefit of society as a whole.

See, the truth of the matter is that teachers believe that children can change. We have to, otherwise our jobs would be futile. We already believe what biology has proven, that the physiological development of a human is ongoing. Young people are in flux until they become older people and the circuity becomes hard-wired. You can see this reflected in legal systems across the globe: most societies operate with an age of criminal responsibility.

Ken Robinson, in his much viewed TED talk, ‘Changing Education Paradigms’, suggests that society readily over-diagnoses ADD and ADHD in its attempt to make every child fit a desirable behavioural template. Rightly so, he lambasts this approach as clumsy and dangerous, in that it fails to accept the nuances of human behaviour. Like the frontal lobe lobotomies of the 1950s, (in which criminals had their frontal lobes severed, leaving them unable to commit crimes but equally unable to be a fully functioning human being) searching for medical ‘solutions’ to behaviour is a kind of brutal modification that is clearly rooted in blame theory. You can’t sit still Jimmy, so we’ll fix you. And you deserve our treatment plus its nasty side effects because you CAN’T SIT STILL JIMMY.

Where I think Ken Robinson’s ideas need further interrogation is in the impulse behind the diagnosis of behavioural conditions such as ADD and ADHD. Is it an evil plan from the shady powers-that-be to create societal automatons, or something less malevolent? Is it in fact a desperation to ensure that children become ‘socialised’ before it is too late?

And so to the point of this essay. Schools, I believe are institutions of socialisation. I’ve spent four years helping to develop a school with a profound interest in well-being, which underpins everything from behaviour to academic progress. In our version of Parents’ Evening, each student talks about their progress and development as a person, with reference to various manifestations of this progress via school work and school experiences. Students reflect on their past and contemplate their futures, making sense of their impulses, choices and potential futures; their behaviour, in the broadest possible sense of the word.

And we wrestle with the frustrations of unmodified behaviour on a daily basis. That kid who defies authority today will have to deal with authority as an adult tomorrow, so we go through endless tweaks of her actions in the (desperate?) hope that she will be able to undergo a useful modification, before the frontal lobe becomes set. That kid who takes no responsibility for his actions now will be thrown to the wolves of a legal system that offers no second chances tomorrow, so we sit him in detention and ask him to reflect on his actions, hoping (desperately?) that the sting of punishment will complement the pillows of counselling. In this, it has become abundantly clear to me that much teacher energy is spent on socialising students; getting them ready for a world in which their behaviour will determine their fate.

If this is ultimately what 21st century schooling is, then the real job of the teacher must be acknowledged as thus. We are not simple subject specialists who deliver content. We are not only curriculum designers who foster cognitive engagement with interesting ideas. We are, perhaps, modifiers of behaviour, steering that final environmental course on the last stop towards socialisation.

In all of this, perhaps we need to be understanders of behaviour above all else, something that successive Education Secretaries seem to get wrong with astonishing alacrity. Case in point: the government’s recent appointment of a so-dubbed ‘behaviour tsar’. At a time when teachers are writing fifteen hundred word blog posts on the subtle shades of student behaviour, it seems a retrograde step to draft in ‘experts’ who believe behaviour management is simply a case of ‘sensible strategies that maximise learning’. Yes it sounds reasonable enough, but it falls short of the true debate at hand; do we even understand what ‘bad behaviour’ is? As Eagleman writes of the legal system:

“Effective law requires effective behavioural models: understanding not just how we would like people to behave, but how they actually behave.”

Something to think about.

-Unseen Flirtations

Teaching: When should we stop inventing the wheel?

This year, I have developed or collaborated on no less than five different systems for mid-term curriculum planning. I have spent the year seeking out examples of ‘best practice’ among my department which I have diligently recorded in an ever-growing spreadsheet, seemingly sprawling into some infinite future. I have created new resources for every single unit I have taught, including those units that I have taught one, twice, three or four times before. And my lessons have been a string of experiments in new ideas and pedagogies, born of ongoing debate with my colleagues.

To use CV speak, I am currently in my eighth year of teaching and entering my fourth year at my present school. So why does my job still resemble a training ground of experimental practice and revisioning what has already been revisioned?

The obvious (and hopelessly erroneous) answer is that I am a perfectionist. You hear this a lot in professional circles; individuals who either claim to be perfectionists and say so in order to validate insecurities over their performance (which more or less everyone has) and those people who point the finger at ‘perfectionists’ as somehow inefficient and unable to prioritise properly (bad managers). This is not the case, though I once thought it was. I once thought, maybe not explicitly but somewhere in my psyche, that there was such thing as ‘best practice’, a kind of pedagogical holy grail that could be sought, achieved and held on to into long the grey UPS years. At the end of year one at my current school, I spent a very frustrating summer term trying  to document and package all the best practice that we had evolved/ stumbled upon/ conjoured/ delete as appropriate since September.

But the fact is that best practice is a myth. Last year, a much celebrated Head teacher/ super-Head/ guru/ Executive Head/ delete as appropriate took me to one side and, Obi Wan like, explained the significance of next practice over best practice; the idea that teachers should be continually looking towards the next best thing rather than searching round and round for THE best thing. A subtle and useful distinction, yes, but that still doesn’t quite address my year of wheel invention.

‘Why reinvent the wheel?’ is a question that many managerial types might throw at their subordinates in the search for greater efficiency. Why not take what works and roll that out? Or, (for the funkier managers out there) why not take what works and roll that out, with a few tweaks? You can see the logic, but what this practical and logistical approach to teaching fails to recognise is twofold: 1) that inventing the wheel is an engaging challenge and 2) that a wheel can be invented over and over again.

In his book on the hidden machinations of the human brain, ‘Incognito’, neuroscientist David Eagleman posits the idea that much of our brain’s powers of invention lie not in its ability to find THE solution, but in its tendency to keep on looking for solutions even when a perfectly good solution has been found. To put it simply, the brain is hard wired to work out different ways of achieving set goals. It’s the difference (to steal an analogy) between the handyman with one tool  vs the handyman with 100 toolkits. Even if the hammer is missing, handyman B can use a wrench, or spanner, or whatever. Handyman A, with the lonely screwdriver, might be at a loss.

In neurological terms this is best evidenced in Alzheimer’s sufferers. In layperson’s terms, the disease works by corroding parts of the brain that deal with certain functions, therefore leaving the sufferer unable to carry out said functions. However, many people (those who routinely kept mentally active by doing puzzles, creating art, reading interesting blog posts, etc) who think they are Alzheimer’s-free actually may have the disease, but never ever notice. Why? Because their active minds have worked out new and various ways of completing tasks that their corroded brain should be incapable of. To quote Eagleman:

“Evolve solutions; when you find a good one, don’t stop.”

As we should strive for in teaching? I think so. The only way to stay sharp in this game is to keep your tools flinty and assume there is always another way. This, I believe, is the motivation behind the continual wheel invention that typifies many teachers’ day-to-day experiences. We keep on looking for solutions, even when, or especially when, perfectly adequate solutions have been found. In practice, this looks like many of the behaviours described earlier:

  • Going off-piste on existing schemes of work
  • Re-inventing established units of work
  • Developing new ways to plan
  • Spending meaningful energy on reflection and self-critique
  • Using debate to generate pedagogic theory
  • Approaching each and every lesson as a blank page
  • Interrogating existing ‘norms’ and accepted truths about teaching
  • Etc

In all of this, the role and purpose of experience becomes interesting. Does it help the perpetual evolution of solutions by giving a broad context of what has and has not worked? Or does it hinder progress by offering too many ‘successful’ wheels to fall back on? Something to think about.

For a far more detailed insight into these neurological ideas, I highly recommend reading ‘Incognito’ by David Eagleman. For a far richer debate on how this might impact upon your teaching, I highly recommend talking about this blog post with your colleagues.

Finlay’s Hours: ‘Definition’

 

A chronological collection of writing during my son’s first fortnight of life, in Neonatal ICU.

Definition

Strength is the ability to assimilate the extraordinary into the ordinary.

Bravery is the ability to meet each upwards oscillation of fate with a new intensity of frequency that establishes a new plateau from previously unspoken peaks.

Fear is the complete and overwhelming realisation that you have no means to control the things, seen or unseen, that threaten to alter the accepted defaults of your existence.

Relief is the realisation that expectations have not changed.

Joy is the acceptance of good fortune.

Happiness is the confirmed acknowledgment of Relief.

Guilt is the suspicion that you could, or should, or might be able to effect changes in your current stability that could prevent Fear from infiltrating your personal circumstances.

Love is the inability to exist on your own elemental terms, independent of the existence of another element.

Support is the tendency to recognise the underlying beneficial factors in someone else’s decisions and meet these factors with your own enthusiasm.

Commitment is the ability to choose Support on spite of Fear.

Worry is the early onset of Guilt.

-Unseen Flirtations

Finlay’s Hours: ‘Like Birth’

A chronological collection of writing during my son’s first fortnight of life, in Neonatal ICU.

Like birth,
Progress is so gradual,
So incremental,
That you can easily miss it.
But there’s always that moment,
That moment of give,
That takes you a step forward,
Upwards and into
Something new.
A before and an after,
Clearly in view.

-Unseen Flirtations

Finlay’s Hours: ‘The Best Art’

 

 

A chronological collection of writing during my son’s first fortnight of life, in Neonatal ICU.

(note: Before going into labour, my wife bought me a book of British short stories so as to have something to read during the process. The introduction to this collection was rather academic. Among other ideas, the editor, Malcolm Bradbury, posited the notion that the best short story writers of the 20th century challenge the notion of the short story as a format as well as seeking to make a statement through the content of their work. This thought rolled around in my head like an inky marble, before eventually being manifested in the poem below.)

The Best Art

The best art challenges the very notion of itself.
If this holds true,
Then you are a masterpiece
Because you revision life
And interrogate the form of life we had formed
In our creative minds
Before you were born.
You took our imperatives
And put a question mark on them.
You made us think, not again,
But for the first time
About what it essentially means to be.

You Quentin Tarantinoed our Hollywood production,
You James Joyced our perfect novel,
You Alexander McQueened our Spring Summer collection,
You Chris Ofilied our shitty lives,
You Emined up our bed
And Eminemed up our bars
And Nasir Jonesed our debut record.

You Grand Wizard Theodored our neatly stacked vinyl,
You Zinedine Zidaned our pregnancy final,
You Picassoed our classics
And Maleviched the four-cornered square of our lives.

You Damon Dashed our business plans
And John Coltraned our saxophone solos
Into something supreme. Sublime.
You Jaco Pistorioused our bassiest lows
And punk rock studded our high street clothes.

You Zaha Hadided our walls and our ceilings
Mike Tysoned our lights out
And Dysoned our feelings
Into a vacuum.

You William Morrised our florals,
You Michel Roux Juniored our meals
And Rodney Mullened all four wheels
That we ride upon.

You Michael Jacksoned our video,
Then Gondryed it,
Then Shynolad it,
Before you Da Vincied our smiles,
Becketted our short stories,
Woolfed our consciouses
And Shakespeared our sonnets.

You did all that
Without brush, pen, or palette,
Creative genius
Placed on this planet.
Your raw material:
Intensive care,
You Finlay Hostick-Boakyed
The air.

-Unseen Flirtations

 

 

 

 

 

Finlay’s Hours: ‘Imagine’

 

A chronological collection of writing during my son’s first fortnight of life, in Neonatal ICU.

Imagine watching your 6-day old son have a tube forcibly inserted down his throat, into his lungs, before having mucus and secretions withdrawn manually.

Imagine his arm spasming with every push, his mouth forced open with a plastic brace tied across the rear of his head.

Imagine his quaking body and curling toes, his silent protestations and bandaged nose, another tube in one nostril drawing substances from his stomach.

Imagine his eyes, glued shut with fatigue and morphine, struggling to open as well-meaning hands pummel his chest.

Imagine seeing his signs of life digitised in primary colours, fluctuate in real time.

Imagine seeing him retch and stretch in seeming distress, bare chested, breathing in flaps, bursts and jets of activity.

-Unseen Flirtations

Finlay’s Hours: ‘Question’

 

A chronological collection of writing during my son’s first fortnight of life, in Neonatal ICU.

(note: Even in 20/20 hindsight, I can’t unravel the crypticism of this poem. God knows what was going through my head at the time of writing)

 

Question

Is this the bravest thing I wrote:
Do these words show naïve hope?

-Unseen Flirtations

Finlay’s Hours: ‘Some Shapes in the Sunshine’

 

A chronological collection of writing during my son’s first fortnight of life, in Neonatal ICU.

We slowly pick our way through treacle days,
Our arms outstretched in constant hesitation.
New born: each step in studied desperation,
Eyes down, to see the feet and find a way

To navigate. We stagger in directions
Dictated by this landscape we have made
Of scattered twigs and dust and naked questions
That sit like snares with open jaws. We wait

For day. But simple light is all it brings.
Illuminating what we cannot see
At night. And struggle still to really see,
With no idea of what these shapes could mean.

-Unseen Flirtations