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Category Archive • How to teach
November 07, 2004
"Homeschooled children are usually self-starters …"

This article is getting attention from fellow ed-bloggers (here and here).

Final sentences:

… One of the real benefits of homeschooling is that the student learns from the beginning that his/her education is his/her responsibility and not the responsibility of the parent/teacher. Homeschooled children are usually self-starters who are very flexible. They learn to do research, to look for information on their own, and to make good use of whatever resources are available. As a result, they are able to educate themselves far beyond the level of the typical public schooled child.

I am about to become a lowest-possible-form-of teacher. Consent is one prejudice I bring to this. Another is that teaching means inflaming and then encouraging and assisting the above quality, of self-starterdom. In practice that means: when they are concentrating on learning something that they have chosen to learn do not interrupt.

Like consent, an easier rule to expound than to follow. We shall see.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:53 PM
Category: Home educationHow to teach
[1] [1]
October 05, 2004
Let them try it first – then lecture them about it

I think this is interesting:

A teacher wrote me a letter, saying, "I found it very interesting that the Japanese teachers have students struggle with a problem before they teach them how to solve it. We never do that. We teach them how to solve it first, and then let them work on examples."

She said, "I’m a very traditional teacher – I just get up and lecture – but I decided to try something after reading your book. I now start my lessons by letting students try to solve it on their own, and then give my lecture." She said this small change had worked brilliantly for her. She saw a huge change in motivation and engagement in her students.

First they do it. Then theorise about it for them, in a way that then makes sense. Load. Fire. Take aim.

It found this here.

Many adverts work like this. First confuse them with a confusing message. Then explain it.

And TV shows. And newspaper and magazine pieces. First you hit them with some enticing but rather confusing surface facts, perhaps facts which have already got around in a garbled form. Then you say: okay, what's really going on here?

Personally I favour pupils choosing what to be confused about, and on that basis choosing which lectures to attend, or to attend to, but that's beside this particular point. Close, but beside.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:47 AM
Category: How to teach
[0] [1]
September 16, 2004
How a special talent can get you a good general education – Chetham's and Real Madrid

Last time I was in touch with her family, the news of Goddaughter II was that she is hoping to get to Chetham's School of Music, on the back of her cello playing, which is apparently improving fast.

The great thing about Chetham's is that (a) it produces lots of excellent musicians, and,(b) just as vital, it produces lots of excellent non-musicians, people who excelled at music when they were kids, but who then went on to do other things in later life, with equal enthusiasm and distinction. Chetham's supplies great music education, and great non-music education. No wonder Goddaughter II's family are so keen on her to try to get there. Hope she does it. Even if she doesn't, the attempt will stretch her in all the right ways, I think. (I hope.)

And now here is another story, this time culled from googling about strangers, of a kid with one great talent, who is about to have his education built around that.

Spanish football giants Real Madrid have added a seven-year-old boy from Brighton to their ranks of superstars.

Niall Mason impressed Real at a two-week summer course at the club so much that they asked him to join their prestigious Escuela Deportivo de Futbol Federation Madrid.

He becomes the latest English player on Real's books following the signings of David Beckham, Michael Owen and Jonathan Woodgate.

Niall will train twice a week for eight months at the academy with his schooling continuing at a local English school.

The Mason family, including his mother Mimosa, father Russell and three-year-old sister Maya, are all moving to Madrid where they will live in a flat close to Real's Bernabeu stadium.

Sounds like a somewhat Spanish family already, doesn't it? Well, good luck to them all.

Everything depends, with a story like this, on the way that the adults handle things. Do they bet everything on Niall becoming a soccer star, and then treat him, and make him treat himself, like a total failure if that doesn't work out? Or do they teach him soccer, and teach him the kind of things that a star institution like Real Madrid can teach him about life in general, and thereby prepare him well for whatever life may bring him.

I'm optimistic about Niall's chances. I don't think that Real would have gone to all this bother for Niall if they didn't like the look of his family background as well as his soccer skills. And I have enough respect for Real as educators ("Escuela Deportivo de Futbol Federation Madrid" sounds like they take all this pretty seriously), not only to hope that things will go well for Niall, but actually to think it, regardless of whether he ever makes it in big time soccer. Sorry: "Futbol".

Besides which, the Real futbol team may find themselves needing him quite soon.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:35 PM
Category: GlobalisationHow to teachSport
[0] [0]
June 09, 2004
A relaxing French lesson from Michel Thomas

MichelThomasFrench.jpgI've made a start with these CDs.


I am not completely convinced by his accent, and it is vital, when learning something, to believe in the veracity of the material being presented. Next time I meet a real Frenchman, I will listen to particular things very carefully, and ask for clarification on certain points. I suspect Michel Thomas of having spent his time in France in the south of France. Maybe that's the difference.

I didn't know that it is necessary to emphasise the last syllable of a French word, or risk incomprehensibility. I assume he's right about that. But again, it sounded vaguely south of France rather than France as a whole. But I presume him to be right about that.

But, those few quibbles aside, I am very impressed. So far I have listened to about half of the first CD, there being eight CDs in all. So, early days, and maybe later I'll want to revise some of what follows. Nevertheless, for the time being …

The most interesting thing about the Michel Thomas teaching method is that everything he does is done the way it is done in order to keep the victim relaxed, i.e. for the victim not to be a victim. Whenever a pupil (a much better word) hesitates or gets it wrong, he corrects them, without implying any blame. Indeed, he starts not by pitching right into teaching, but by saying that his method of teaching places the responsibility for the pupil learning on the teacher, rather than on the pupil, and that the pupil has to be relaxed, and not worrying, either about these French lessons or about anything else. The only thing that the pupil has to do is relax, listen and keep on listening, and to join in with the answers as required. He mustn't do homework, or take notes, or make any effort to remember things.

The presentational method of the CDs is to have a couple of pupils responding to Thomas' instructions, exactly as he wants you to respond. Every so often there is a bleep noise, at which point you must hold the pause button down and say the answer, and then resume, and see if you got it right. Usually, you did. Because he just told you the answer a moment ago.

There is no bullshit here about how there is no such thing as teaching, only learning. Michel Thomas is a teacher, and he is very clear about that.

Because of the presence of pupils, these CDs serve not only as lessons in the subject being taught, but also as lessons in how to teach (by which I simply mean the technique for transferring knowledge from mind A to mind B), which for me made them doubly valuable.

The most interesting feature of all of this "keep them relaxed" method is that not only does Thomas almost never criticise (he did a tiny bit when he told a pupil not to guess); he also goes very easy on the praise. What matters to him is the continuity of the learning process, learning being its own reward. You are pleased not because Michel Thomas says how wonderful you are, but because you have learned a lot of stuff and are getting answers right.

Thomas is teaching not just French as such, but French to people who already know English, and he makes use of the enormous overlap between the two languages, so pronounced (as it were – actually pronounced a bit differently) that one ancient French guy whose name I have forgotten said that English is just French badly pronounced. Any English words ending in –ation or -ary, for example, are actually French words, and you already know them. Interesting, and enlightening, but of course that kind of method wouldn't work for English people learning Chinese or somethiong.

It also occurs to me that the Michel Thomas method is actually quite "mechanical", in that Michel Thomas himself could do it to a new pupil pretty much automatically. This says two things to me. First, it explains Michel Thomas' enormous, all-embracing confidence in his ability to teach, say, French, to anyone. Teaching French to someone new whom he has only just met is, for him, no harder than doing up his own shoe laces, and, simply, he knows how to do it. I thought I knew that stuff about "teacher expectations", but believe me, until you've sampled Thomas, you have never experienced unconditional and total teacher confidence to compare. Thomas made his judgement of you and decided on his expectations of you right at the start. You are a human, and you have one of those human brain things between your ears. Ergo, given that he knows how to teach it, you will learn it. It is that simple.

And second, the mechanical nature of the method means that it ought to be extremely easy to put it all onto a computer, and make it part of the repertoire of a teaching machine. But that's a different line of thought.

One caveat though. In addition to knowing my regular quota of English French words, I already know quite a lot of French French, having done French at school for quite a while, and having then visited France a number of times. In order to really judge Michel Thomas' excellence as a teacher, I really ought to try some other language of which I now know nothing or next to nothing. When I'm done with the French CDs, I might just do that.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:40 AM
Category: How to teachLanguages
[2] [0]
April 06, 2004
Michel Thomas teaches French to twenty-four eighth graders from the ghetto

I don't know for sure if Michel Thomas is a great teacher, but I am fairly sure he is, despite the fact that the picture of him at his website makes him look like he is wearing a cheap wig.

To try to find out how he does what he does, I have been reading a biography of Thomas called The Test of Courage by Christopher Robbins.

However, most of this book is about Thomas' experience battling with the Nazis and their various allies, collaborators, sympathisers and apologists. I have searched in vain for a systematic statement of his philosophy of education, for his one or two page explanation of how he does it, whatever exactly 'it' may be. Basically, Robbins is not telling us how Thomas teaches. He is telling us what else he has done, and what experiences he brought to teaching.

But there are a few clues, of which the description that follows, very long by the standards of blog postings, is one. You may not want to read all of it, but I found it fascinating, and inspiring. Is it really possible to teach as successfully as this?

The proof of the system, for anyone who cared to investigate, lay with the students. Sometimes, these came from the most unpromising backgrounds and circumstances, such as a class of fifteen-year-old black ghetto youths in a Los Angeles inner-city school still reeling from the aftermath of the Watts riot. Academic activity had been brought to a grinding halt after a series of student sit-ins developed into violent demonstrations culminating in a full-scale riot which almost completely destroyed the school. Teachers walked out, claiming unreasonable working conditions. The principal had a breakdown and had to be replaced. The new principal appealed for outside help. In the circumstances it seemed an almost quixotic gesture on the part of Michel to volunteer to enter the war zone to teach for a week. 'One of the criticisms of the militant community then was that what was taught to black youth was irrelevant. So I thought the most irrelevant thing I could do was to drive down to South Central and teach French.'

Continue reading "Michel Thomas teaches French to twenty-four eighth graders from the ghetto"

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:55 AM
Category: How to teach
[0] [0]
March 11, 2004
David Lester's Parry

I enjoyed reading this article very much (linked to by the wonderful this.

This man is the living embodiment of Peter's Parry.

A Peter's Parry is something practised by people who have a very nice job which they do very well, but who wish to avoid being promoted to a nasty job which they will do badly. The Peter's Parry, in other words, is the answer to the problem faced by so many of us, of the Peter Principle, which states that we all rise to our level of incompetence and then stay there for ever until we retire or die.

A Peter's Parry consists of doing something inessential very badly. I recall Professor Peter himself mentioning the case of a man who was highly competent at what he did, but who would, every so often, park his car in the space reserved for the Managing Director.

David Lester understands this sort of thing perfectly, as he vividly explains:

I went to the first graduation ceremony at the college in 1973, but I have never attended one since. I have not attended a faculty meeting since 1972. I found that I liked my colleagues much better if I did not listen to their silly comments in such meetings. I rarely go to division meetings (I belong to the college's division of social and behavioral sciences), but I do try to make most meetings of the psychology program.

I used to lunch with colleagues, but I found that their continual complaints about the administration and the students soured my attitude toward the college. I switched to lunching with students for a while (faculty members and students share the same cafeteria at my college), and some became good friends of my wife's and mine. (Our annual Super Bowl party rotates between our house and that of one of my students and her husband.)

These days, I eat in my office and check the sports news online. For many years, I had my name removed from the faculty e-mail list so that I had no awareness of what activities were taking place at the college – I missed the president's Christmas party on several occasions because of that – nor what issues were making the faculty and staff members angry. Now I have had myself placed back on the e-mail list, but I direct all collegewide messages to a folder that I rarely peruse.

I do not pick up the telephone in my office, and my voice-mail message informs callers that I do not check for telephone messages. Callers are told to e-mail me.

None of this makes the man unsackable, but it does make him unpromotable. He has thus been free to get on with his life at a lesser college greatly to his liking, of scholarship, travel, matrimony, and above all, to judge by what he says about his students, teaching – and free of the distraction of being made to run any aspects of his college that do not interest him.

The teaching profession contains many such, I think.

A good example is perhaps the history teacher in Lindsay Anderson's movie if ..., who rides into his classroom on a bicycle. No danger of anyone wanting to make him a headmaster.

I remember an old gent who taught at Marlborough when I was there, of whom the following is a typical report, of a snatch of conversation. Boy: "I've been doing gym sir." Old Gent: "How nice for Jim." Not very witty. Not "inappropriate" enough (as we now say) to get him the sack. But, definitely inappropriate enough (when added to all the other similar reports) to rule him out for further promotion, which in his case would have meant the tedious burdens of being made a House Master.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:01 PM
Category: How to teach
[0] [0]
March 03, 2004
No harm done

I'm in two minds about this report. Is this good teaching, or not? I'm inclined to think that maybe it is rather good teaching. What do you reckon?

A 17-year-old boy jumped out of a second-floor window at Miami Beach High last week after betting his teacher he was strong enough to do it and not get hurt.

He won the bet, landing unharmed. No immediate word on whether he got any money out of it.

The teacher has been reassigned to a non-teaching job at a regional ACCESS Center while police and school officials investigate the incident.

The science class was in the middle of a lecture on evolution on Wednesday when the student -- whose name was not released -- began talking about jumping out the window to prove his point, according to the police report.

The teacher, Yrvan Tassy Jr., bet him $20 that he would hurt himself if he jumped, police said.

Yes, I suppose this is not really how teachers should conduct themselves. But I can't help thinking that (a) since the boy won his bet and was indeed undamaged, there was no harm done, but that if (b) he had been damaged, that would have been a valuable lesson for the lad which would have stood him in good stead in the future.

My thanks to the newly located Dave Barry for the link. And for this comment, from someone called Ivoirienne:

I fail to see why the teacher is being investigated for encouraging the scientific testing of his hypothesis. This is purely in line with the education principals of critical thinking and experimentation.

Besides, I've had several students I would love to make this sort of bet with. I've simply been prevented from doing so by the fact that I teach in a windowless grey box.

Probably just as well. And a certain Sean explains it all thus:

Can't you just see how this really happened though?

The teacher is doing the class teaching thing and the kid interrupts with some inane comment about jumping out the window. Teacher, being frustrated by the interruption, figures the kid is full of sh&t and says , 'whatever, an exploding $20 says you hurt yourself if you do it.

Kid jumps and teacher stands there dumbfounded watching his career go out the window.

Yes that's probably how it all happened.

I don't understand the relevance of the "exploding" bit, but the link will make a nice posting on White Rose, where RFID is a four letter word that is intensely disapproved of.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:05 AM
Category: How to teach
[0] [1]
January 26, 2004
Georges Lopez says his goodbyes

On Saturday evening BBC4 TV showed Etre et Avoir, Nicolas Philibert's documentary about Georges Lopez, the French teacher in a primary school in the farming country of the Auvergne. It has been a huge surprise hit in France and is now being given award nominations and awards over here, and you can entirely see why.

There was one of him and about twelve of them. The children all got to know him well, he got to know all of the children well, and we got to know all of them, him and the children.


If there is to be orthodox, compulsory education, then this is clearly the kind of thing it ought to consist of. Georges Lopez was firm, fair, kind, attentive, and clearly loved his charges in just the way that you would want a teacher to do. He taught the 3Rs with care and certainty. He socialised with them and taught them manners, and was never himself anything but polite and respectful. He took them on trips in the surrounding countryside.

When one of the boys was distraught about his father's severe health problems, there was Georges, talking him through it, offering salient philosophical advice and comfort. ("We try to stay healthy, but then illness comes, and we must cope with it.")

I tried to sustain all my usual objections to educational compulsion, which this most definitely was despite the kind and considerate manner in which it was being administered, but honestly, I couldn't sustain them. Given the alternatives offered by their actually existing environment, this was the best deal that these children were going to get, by far. I couldn't blame Georges for the rules of his culture and the times he lived in. He was doing his best, and his best was very, very good.


There was one rather scatter-brained and mischief minded little kid with a splendidly photogenic face (he is now a celebrity, you can bet) called Jojo, who wasn't naturally bookish or logical, more your imaginative, romantic type. There was a lovely scene where Georges got Jojo to understand that there was no limit to how high numbers can go. ("Can you have more than one hundred? Can you have two hundred? What about three hundred? A thousand? Two thousand? Three thousand, … ten thousand, twenty thousand, … a million, two million, three million?" Jojo dutifully supplied the answer that Georges was looking for, which was "Yes you can", but was rather bored by it all, and would clearly have preferred to be talking about the interesting little human drama that was happening over the other side of the room. And eventually, George did defer and switched to talking about that drama. But not before he had stretched Jojo's brain like a piece of chewing gum. And of course, in the final scene, when they were all saying goodbye, Jojo was among those most sorry to be leaving. He loved Georges more than almost any of them. At least Georges, although firm with him, was also kind and gentle. I bet lots of others weren't nearly so patient when they were telling Jojo what to do.


The other scene that stuck in my mind was when another kid was filmed doing his homework, surrounded by his entire family. Mum, Dad, a brother, and an uncle I think it was. On and on it went, with Dad in particular sweating away at the mysteries of higher arithmetic. The camera stayed absolutely still. It looked like a Rembrandt. Boy and family doing homework. Beautiful.

A particularly pro-French thought. When they were all saying their final goodbyes, they all said goodbye with the ceremonial three-times-over left-right-left French kisses, boys and girls alike. My own bit of culture contains no such ceremonial interchange. This one was peculiarly appropriate for this particular moment, and very flexible. It could be distant and correct, like getting a medal from the President, or affectionate, as between members of a family. You could see Georges adapting the atmosphere to suit each child, with the last boy being particularly formal and distant. ("Au revoir Monsieur!")

There was one girl to whom Georges made a point of not saying a final goodbye. She was due to go to another much, much bigger school, and she was distraught. She was seriously bad at communicating, with anyone, but was just about okay with Georges and the small classroom with its small number of other children. She sat with Georges, rocking with repetitious grief and fear at the horrors to come. Georges did most of the talking, combining firmness and gentle concern as best he could, expressing confidence, while offering the poor girl the chance to come and visit Georges and tell him how she was doing. Okay? "Oui."

With a little bit of luck, it helped. And quite possibly this talk made all the difference to her entire life to come. It wouldn't surprise me.

Georges himself is (and I guess it's was by now) to say goodbye to teaching soon after this film was in the can, and when he told his kids about that they were not best pleased. A lot of the appeal of this film is the feeling you have while watching it that this is a fast vanishing world. This kind of kindness, politeness and personal attention may soon be a thing of the past.

After the film was so successful, there was then a huge row about how much of the money that the film so unexpectedly made ought to go to Georges Lopez himself. A lot, was Georges' opinion. I don't know how that all finished, but in any case that's a different story.

I'm glad about the pictures decision. I can feel it working already.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:24 PM
Category: How to teachPrimary schools
[5] [0]
September 30, 2003
Better than the rest

Friedrich Blowhard links to, quotes from and comments on a New York Times story very much like the bits of this story that I linked to last week.

Says Friedrich of another of those exceptional educational leaders who do better than the rest by being nice plus old fashioned:

Corporal punishment, while permitted by the school’s by-laws, has apparently never been necessary, possibly because of Principal Whitfield’s previous line of work as a professional football player. This former New York public school teacher also takes the time to greet every student from pre-school to 8th grade with either a hug or a formal handshake.

It kind of makes you wonder if America’s schools aren’t failing for lack of well-socialized children, but for lack of leaders who are willing to be – well, you know, adults.

Individual success stories like this are worth celebrating, but not if the implication is that nationalised education can be rescued simply by everyone just, you know, doing better. And if the government reads these stories, boils down what it reads into a set of national instructions (hire only professional sportsmen, all heads must greet, with hug or handshake, all pupils every morning, and must behave in an adult manner at all times …) then forget about it. It will just be another way to mess up the system.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:02 AM
Category: How to teach
[0] [0]
September 02, 2003
Separating teaching from tyranny

The article by Jennifer Chew about phonics which I scanned in here last Wednesday is now up at the Telegraph website.

A homeschooling commenter denounced it thus:

More dogma and propaganda from those who have been indoctrinated to think they know who to raise my child better than I do.

I have a recent post on a topic related to this on my blog.


I'm not quite sure which particular "this" the posting on her blog refers to. Is it the phonics, the presumption of teaching superiority, or the "infant school" thing? Not sure.

I don't know if what follows works as any sort of answer to Joanne Davidson's objections, but maybe it does.

It seems to me that two things constantly get lumped together, both by those who favour both, and by those who oppose both, namely very structured and disciplined teaching, and the claim that children should be forced to submit to such teaching against their will.

I'm pretty sure that Jennifer Chew is a more or less unquestioning believer in the necessity of compulsory education, particularly for small children. In this I disagree with her, as does commenter Joanne. But when it comes to the teaching of literacy, I believe that I have a lot to learn from such persons as Jennifer Chew.

Put it this way. Supposing someone asked me which was better for a child: Being "taught" to read and write by those disastrously confusing "look and say" (i.e. look and guess) methods, in purely consenting circumstances, year after year? Or: Being forced to pay attention to someone like Jennifer Chew for a few early months of life? Well, I just hope no one asks. All I can say is I'd try like hell to persuade the "voluntary" teacher to change his or her ways, and if I failed … I'd not be a happy person. At present, most of the damage done by "look and say" is compulsorily inflicted by idiot state teachers, so that question, put to me, has never arisen.

Most of us have good memories of teachers who were (a) tyrants and (b) great teachers. Conflating their justified confidence that they knew how to teach something with a belief that this entitled them to force it down their pupils' throats (the key Bad Idea here) they duly did so. But, we have happy memories of this because to us what counted most was the good teaching, rather than the tyranny, which was irksome but (given the alternatives which probably involved just as much tyranny but less in the way of good teaching) bearable.

Yet good teaching and learning on the one hand, and compulsory teaching and learning on the other hand, are two absolutely different and distinct things. Good teaching may involve orders and obedience and abuse and prodding and poking and generally bossing the pupil around, but it absolutely doesn't have to involve the pupil having no right to switch this process off.

Some of the best teaching I've ever done has started with me saying: "Look, you can stop this at any moment, without explanation. Literally, whenever you want out, you can get out. No problem. But while you stay, you have to at least try to do what I say, or I'll get frustrated and I'll want to stop. Okay? Deal? Yes? Off we go then." And then followed a burst of high pressure teaching that to the naked eye would have been indistinguishable from tyranny. But it was not tyranny. Consent ruled throughout. The right to leave makes all the difference to the pupil's experience, to the pupil's attitude, to pupil morale. It means that despite all appearances to the contrary, the pupil stays in control. (A similar principle is embodied in the idea of an assembly line worker having next to him at all times a button which he can personally push to stop dead the entire assembly line.)

Boys in particular often love this sort of bare knuckle learning ordeal, which at the time is scary, but which afterwards they can feel genuinely proud of having lived through and learned from.

And one of the absolute worst ways to separate teaching from tyranny is to remove all orders, criticism, holding to a standard, attention demanding, prodding or poking, mental or physical, EXCEPT the tyranny of forbidding the victims of this vacuous anarchy from getting the hell out of there. Boys, in particular, will despise such "teaching", and if you attempt it on a gang of them, they will give you the exact punishment you deserve. They will make your life a living hell. That is a one-paragraph summary of all that is wrong with state education in Britain today, and I'll bet also in a hell of a lot of other countries.

I know what you're thinking. How do you persuade children to learn something like reading and writing if they don't want to. The answer is right there in the question. You persuade them. (I call it "selling the culture".) You tell them why you really, really think they ought to learn to read and write, why you are so, so pleased you learned to read and write as early as you did, and then hope that they agree with you. And then you, or someone, teaches them. If they don't agree with you, increase your advertising budget. Spend more time on the persuading. (And before anyone says the opposite, advertising and compulsion are also absolutely different things.)

If you can't think of any good reason why kids should bother with reading and writing and are just taking it on trust from your social superiors, and "selling" reading and writing to your kids on a because-I-say-so basis, then there's your problem right there. You don't actually see the point of it yourself. So why be surprised if your kids don't either? That's the message you've sold them, very persuasively.

So anyway, my question to Joanne is: were you objecting to the compulsion? – in which case I'm with you. Or to the phonics? – in which case I think you are turning your back on some very good stuff, the best stuff on the teaching of literacy that I personally know about.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:15 PM
Category: Boys will be boysBrian's brilliant teaching careerHow to teachLiteracy
[2] [0]
July 09, 2003
"You don't have to be a horse to be a jockey"

The weather in London today is not calculated to provoke profundity. It is hot. It is humid. Frankly, you're lucky to get any education blogging here at all, and what you will get will be the usual piggy-packing on someone else, rather than anything startling from me.

The man on whose shoulders I ride today is Brian Glanville, writing in the sports pages of timesonline.co.uk (stuff in timesonline.co.uk soon disappears from the one-click-and-you're-there-o-sphere, so no link). Glanville heeps yet more well deserved scorn on that old cliché about how those who can do and those who can't teach and that those who can't, yet who teach nevertheless, ought therefort to be ashamed of themselves. But those who can't are often great teachers, as he proves by talking about some of the best football managers:

“YOU don’t have to have been a horse to be a jockey.” Such were the lapidary words of little Arrigo Sacchi, who never kicked a ball in anger but rose to become manager of Milan’s championship-winning team and of the Italy team that lost the 1994 World Cup final, only on penalties, to Brazil.

His words came back to me when it was announced that Carlos Queiroz had been made manager of the illustrious Real Madrid, who were said to have preferred in vain his fellow Portuguese, the 40-year-old Jose Mourinho, manager of the FC Porto team that beat Celtic in the Uefa Cup final in May and took the Portuguese league title into the bargain.

Sir Bobby Robson, once a fine footballer and World Cup player, mused that neither Portuguese manager had played football of any consequence. Both had worked under him. Queiroz came from an academic background and began as a schoolteacher. Mourinho, also a teacher — as, of course, was Liverpool’s Gérard Houllier before he made his managerial name at Noeux-les-Mines — initially became Robson’s interpreter when the Englishman managed Porto, “an academic without a football background” who stayed with Robson for six years, following him to Barcelona.

I love it. Especially the guy who started out as an interpreter, for goodness sake. It just goes to show that if you can get your foot in the door, watch whatever it is being taught, and learn to tell who is doing it right and who is doing it wrong and what needs to be said to get them to do it right, you can basically teach anything, even if you are paralysed from the neck downwards.

This harks back to a posting I did last year about the Charlton brothers, Jacky and Bobby, in which I suggested an inverse relationship between inborn ability and teaching ability, the point being that the former is so very hard to be explicit about. Just kick it, boy! Like this! What's your problem? Dunno, coach, I thought you might be able to tell me.

Good teachers, especially teachers of the sort who don't actually do whatever it is very well (or even at all), do not think like this, and do not teach like this. They may never know how to do it themselves, but they know the right things to say to the people who are doing it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:51 PM
Category: How to teach
[3] [1]
July 07, 2003
Linda Schrock Taylor

My thanks to David Farrer of Freedom and Whisky for sending me the link to this LewRockwell.com article by Linda Schrock Taylor. Nothing like a blogger bash to stimulate the exchange of useful information:

When I introduce a new group of students to my reading class, I explain that there are two main ways to teach reading – with sight words or with phonics. I tell them that I will present them with some information, and let them decide which method they wish me to use.

I explain that with the sight word approach (Dick & Jane, whole language, balanced instruction, balanced reading, re-packaged whole language, re-named whole language,…) the student only needs to memorize about 250,000 words, for instant sight recognition, in order to be a very good reader.

I explain that it is difficult for the human brain to achieve this feat …

I'll say. What is especially satisfying about this piece is that this is not just a teacher saying that her phonetics based methods work better; it is also a teacher saying how they actually work. I won't copy and past the entire thing, much as I'm tempted. But if such methods are of interest to you, I strongly, on the basis of what I've learned about this stuff so far, recommend the whole thing. I've never got around to reading LewRockwell.com properly. Maybe this needs to change.

Any explanations of why I'm wrong to admire this piece, if I am, would be particularly welcome.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:57 PM
Category: How to teachLiteracy
[3] [0]
June 17, 2003
Teaching once and teaching hard

I'm impressed by this. It's one of my favourite people at the moment, Theodore Dalrymple, proving that teaching doesn't have to go on and on, build up a "relationship" etc, to have an effect. Often it can consist of saying one true and forcefully expressed thing, and moving on.

“You know, you done me a lot of good when I was in jail,” he said. “I came to you for help. You said I didn’t need no medicine, I just needed to decide not to come back. You said there was nothing wrong with me. I thought you was very hard, but you was right. I’ve kept out of trouble for four years ever since. You spoke straight to me.”

This bloke recognised Dalrymple when they met again, but Dalrymple didn't recognise him. And that's my point.

Dalrymple is obsessed with being right, and he mostly is, in my opinion. When he is right, and someone tells him he's right, he's pleased and he doesn't mind who knows it. I much prefer proud men with something to be proud about, than men who have nothing to be proud about and aren't. He is, in short, something of a show-off. He wades through the miseries of the underclass, telling it (and them) like it is, proud of being right, showing-off.

Show-offs can make excellent teachers.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:45 AM
Category: How to teach
[3] [0]
June 13, 2003
On not teaching

Alice Bachini has a nice bit today (If that doesn't work try the link to TCS below - bloody blogspot) about her life as a teacher. What a loss to the profession. Seriously, I bet she was excellent.

But what I found especially interesting was this first comment from Emma.

It interests me that so many TCS-ers or TCS-interested people (judging by a wide scientific survey of reading some of the tCS list posts ) have backgrounds as teachers, lecturers, whatever, or still work in the education industry in some way.

Do we get interested in TCS because we see ourselves co-ercing other people in our classes and think "I wouldn't like that to happen to me/my children"?

Or is it because we are trying to do our best to be friends/mentors/ information sources/whatever, but we come to the conclusion that the way people treat children in general makes it difficult if not impossible to do that cool thing within the system without being coercive?

I guess I should TCS-list this comment, but I'll leave it here too!

And now it's here too.

I'm sure that's right about the motivation for leaving, and then for wanting something different and better. And it illustrates why the present government plan for getting more teachers, which is based merely on the idea that there are lots of potential teachers out there who just have to be told to join the profession, and then they will. All it will take is a few TV adverts, and a few celebrities writing articles about teachers who inspired them, and the new teachers will step forward.

But what if those potential teachers have thought about it, along much the same lines as those TCS people, and they are staying away for the same kinds of reasons the TCSers went away?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:59 PM
Category: How to teach
[0] [0]
June 11, 2003
Sucher on Said

(If you are a soccer fan, that could sound like Sukor on side. Ignore.)

David Sucher has a fascinating recollection of having been taught by Edward Said, and having been told by him about how to answer someone who seems to have all the answers.

Good teachers are sometimes forgotten at once. You learn what he's teaching you, and completely forget that it was he who taught you.

And good teachers are sometimes remembered forty years later.

As these people say, teaching comes in many forms.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:16 PM
Category: How to teach
[2] [0]
May 20, 2003
Dalrymple (and me) on the need for consistent correction

Remember that boy called Ali whom I once taught maths to? Well, of course you don't, but I do. The gist of what I said about Ali was that I thought he had been misinformed by inconsistent correcting of his work. After all if you tell a kid that 2+2=4 and not 5, but leave 2+2=5 unmolested elsewhere in the same piece of homework, what is he supposed to think? Confusion is bound to follow.

This was why I had a special place in my affections for children who always got the same sum wrong, but with the same wrong answer. They may not have got the right answer, but at least they had grasped that there was a right answer. They were merely wrong about what it was.

Anyway, I've been reading more Theodore Dalrymple on education (see below). And guess what? – have a read of this:

I was told of one school where the teachers were allowed by the headmaster to make corrections, but only five per piece of work, irrespective of the number actually present. This, of course, was to preserve the amour propre of the children, but it seemed not to have occurred to this pedagogue that his five-correction rule was likely to unfortunate consequences. The teacher might choose to correct an error in the spelling of a word, for example, and overlook precisely the same error in the next piece of work. How is a child to interpret correction based on this headmaster's principle? the less intelligent, perhaps, will regard it as a species of natural hazard, like the weather, about which he can do very little; while the more intelligent are likely to draw the conclusion that the principle of correction as such is inherently arbitrary and unjust.

Which is taking it a stage further than I did, but the procedure I was complaining about is what Dalrymple also attacks. Either way, inconsistent correction is a recipe for confusion and ignorance.

In my opinion one of the most basic educational principles is to understand that correcting error is not the same as launching a wounding personal attack on the corrected person. On the contrary, every time a child is told to stop doing something wrong and to do it right is a step in the right direction for that child and a potential cause for celebration and congratulation, rather than for woe. It all depends how you do the correcting.

Sometimes, I suppose, a little aversion therapy is in order. This was how I was taught to drive, by a man sitting next to me who shouted and hit me with his pencil every time I made a mistake. I stopped making mistakes. Given what can happen to you when you make a mistake when driving a car, this is not an unreasonable way to teach driving skills, I'd say. It certainly worked for me, and it did so after I'd been unsuccessfully prepared for the test by a kinder but less relentless and unkind instructor whom I eventually stopped using.

But correcting doesn't have to be hurtful in this way. No, not like that. Like this. Well done! Very good!

There you are, teachers. That's not hard, now is it? Cretins!!!

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:33 PM
Category: How to teach
[1] [0]
December 27, 2002
The Charlton contrast

"Those who can do, those who can't teach" – right? Only partly right. Partly very wrong.

There are many different ways of teaching, many different ideas wrapped up in the word. I did an interesting little teaching stint recently, in a teacher training college. An academic friend of mine couldn't teach his class in politics, or philosophy, or whatever it was, and he needed me to fill in for him. My friend had in mind that I might like to dose these students with yet more of the political opinions that both I and my friend shared, but since these students were all of them intending to become teachers of one kind or another I decided we'd have a discussion about all the different meanings in the idea of teaching. "I agree with him about politics etc., so let's take that as given, shall we? Let's talk about what teaching means." It went well. We had nearly two hours to fill, and let me tell you, we had no problem whatsoever filling the time. (It may even have been more persuasive politically. After all, the customers found it interesting and illuminating and thought-provoking and fun, or so they all said.)

Here, for example, are two very different meanings to teaching, at opposite ends of one particular scale. At one end there's teaching by example. And at the other end there's being technically rather poor at whatever it is, but, for this reason, being all the more effective at helping the students battle with their technical deficiencies and in general sympathising with them in their struggles.

Consider two great English footballers: the Charlton brothers, Bobby and Jackie. (Both of them played in England's World Cup winning team of 1966.)

There's no doubt about which was the more expert ball-player. Bobby by a mile. Bobby was the crowd-pleaser. It was Bobby's dazzling moves that caught the eye. If you wanted to know what scaling the heights of footballing skill looked like, then look no further. Feast your eyes on Bobby Charlton. And teaching by example is one very important way to teach. People like Bobby Charlton show you things that you might otherwise have assumed to be utterly impossible. That's definitely part of great teaching.

But now consider Jackie. Jackie Charlton wasn't as technically expert as his brother, but he was determined to succeed, and he did. When on the pitch he didn't look like the intellectual type, more the thug defender type, but Jackie Charlton made it as a footballer essentially by thinking about how to be as good a footballer as he could manage. He filled the gap between himself and his brother with brainpower. What for Bobby was more instinctive, for Jackie was much more self-conscious and decided-upon and then self-imposed. If you aren't fast, think about where to be in the first place. In general, it would seem, football defenders have to be brainier than attackers, because although attackers can often work wonders with sheer instinct, defenders must be more disciplined, and, for example, more aware of where all the other defenders are, and where the attackers are, and what they're all doing. Learning to defend is a much more intellectual process than learning to attack. No matter how instinctively talented you are as a defender, you have to think about it a lot.

And who do you suppose became the better footballing teacher? Was it the inspired Bobby or the cerebral, hard-working Jackie? No contest. Bobby never made it as a manager. The lesser players he had in his charge couldn't do what he had been able to do, and he couldn't tell them about how to do it. He just did it - why couldn't they? Well, they just couldn't, or not without some guidance. For Jackie on the other hand, moving from thinking about and guiding his own footballing efforts to becoming a thinker about and a guide for the efforts of others, that is to say a manager (which is what they call a teacher in football), was a seamless process. He certainly had to think like fury when he started out as a manager, but by then this was a totally natural habit for him. Jackie has had a highly distinguished career as a manager, culminating in a spell managing the Irish national side in the World Cup, with great success and to great national acclaim.

Bobby Charlton has whiled away his time as a talent scout (he could spot it even if he couldn't teach it), and, more depressingly, on the Aging Celebrity circuit. By most standards he's had a good life, but by his own standards it must have been a bit of a let-down.

Now I quite agree that as a definition of averageness, being a so-so member of a World Cup winning football team is decidedly imperfect. We should all be so average. Nevertheless, there is a moral here for all those "average" teachers, putting up with the jibes of their more "successful" contemporaries. Can't do anything, can he? - he's a teacher. Couldn't cut it in the "real world"? Well those could be just the things that make some teachers such good teachers. They can sympathise with their struggling pupils because they can remember what it was like when they were struggling, because they still are struggling. They can help baffled adolescents navigate through their exams and their lives, because it's all they can do to manage such things for themselves, right now.

Good education can't only be done by the Jackie Charltons, the humble tryers, the cloggers. You need the living proof of what is possible that only the Bobby Charltons can show you to really inspire the best of the next generation to scale the heights. But the cloggers have their place. Those who can't do can often be just the can-do teachers that you sometimes need.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:13 PM
Category: How to teach
[3] [0]
December 23, 2002
Theatrical teaching

In an earlier posting, I hinted in passing that old fashioned teaching with a touch of showbiz about it often works quite well. This is a story about not such old-fashioned teaching, but also with a showbiz background.

The Victorian red bricks and solid window frames are vibrating at Heathbrook Primary School, in Wandsworth, south-west London, as a year six class of 10- and 11-year-olds shout and stamp loudly. A riot? Hardly. Jim Pope is teaching literacy, numeracy and developing social and listening skills through drama - and it's one of the best managed, most immaculately planned and informative lessons I've seen.

First, the children stand in a ring chanting an action song so rhythmic that it's still echoing in my head several days later.

Then comes a gloriously simple but patently effective mental arithmetic game in which each wall represents two, four, six or eight and the children are in teams. Someone invents a sum, such as 27 divided by three minus one. As soon as they've worked out the answer, they run to the appropriate wall. The last one is out. It sounds hectic, but Pope is scrupulous about safety, constantly reminding the children of the rules.

Jim Pope is not a "supply teacher"; he's an actor.

Jim Pope is employed by the Bigfoot Theatre Company, based in south London. The brainchild of actor and educational missionary Karl Wozny - his feet are size 13 - Bigfoot has been running after-school clubs, holiday courses and performances for children for the past three years. This year, it started a supply teaching agency.

Bigfoot works with 50 "supply" actors. Few are qualified teachers but all are experienced in working with children and are "police checked". Bigfoot trains them rigorously in school practices and the curricula before they start. Once in schools, they are carefully observed until the company is satisfied that the work is up to standard. And the company continually spot-checks its actor/teachers.

The link between showbiz and teaching is an ancient one. At the boarding school I went to the all too rare staff plays were occasions to be treasured, not because it was a chance to witness teachers making fools of themselves, but simply because the pick of them were so amazingly good at acting. I remember a Ben Travers farce to this day, which to me seemed just as good as any professional show I'd ever seen. The ancient art of getting the attention of an audience, and then keeping it using it to tell a memorable story, has obvious applications to teaching.

What is interesting about Bigfoot is that they are using "audience participation" techniques first developed by left-wing agitprop theatre groups in the sixties and seventies to teach bad politics and bad economics to teach, by the sound of it, quite good basic education.

The obvious grumble about such teaching is that children only like it because their usual fare is so boring. Well, maybe so, but at least it sounds as if it is better. And anyway, this sounds like the kind of thing that might survive in a purely free market in education, with parents buying tickets to such shows much as they would buy tickets for any other, and children only attending because they truly want to and find it fun.

You get the feeling that Bigfoot was only ever in the semi-private sector, with local authorities being its major customers, rather than mere people. And now it is adding another tranch of the public sector to its customer base: schools. But it's important that the "supply-side", as my free market lobbyist friends would say, remains in the private sector. They must remain in charge of their product. If they don't, quality control will collapse.

Everything would depend on having people as good as Jim Pope appears to be, as talented to begin with, and as well prepared. The corrupting process to stay alert for is the state system deciding that it could supply lessons like this, just as well as Bigfoot but more cost-effectively and in a more controlled and monitored way, and then turning it into a soulless and tyrannical routine, in the hands of an army of teachers who don't see the point of it all, hate doing it, and take their resentment out on their pupil victims.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:25 PM
Category: How to teach
[0] [0]
December 17, 2002
Why bother with schools?

Well, there's nothing like a pure accident to stir up a bit of ruckus. This blog goes on the blink, so I shove a recent posting for it instead into the blazing limelight that is samizdata.net, and the comments haven't stopped. And now comes this email as well, which I reproduce now in full to encourage more:


In your blog on Samizdata that would have been on the ed blog if it had been up, you wrote:

" If the teacher has the knowledge, and the student wants it and is ready to receive it, then hand it over."

A niggling point, but one worth considering, I think, is the 'bucket theory' of education that this sentence reveals. While the teacher might have the knowledge, the student is interested in the *information* so that they can create the knowledge for their self.

I appreciate the effort you put into the ed blog - and maybe it is just the nature of the beast these days, that education is thought to equal school and teachers as an essential part of education, but please don't go down the road of bloggin about schools and teachers all the time, rather than real education. :)

just a thought,

The whole point of answering student questions when they are asked is precisely because students are not just buckets. The developing, active thinking of a student means that there are those moments when he is ready to receive a particular sort of – okay – information, which is why he asks for it at that moment, and why it makes sense to answer the question when it's asked.

However as a metaphor to describe a certain sort of child reacting to a certain sort of teacher, " information bucket" or even "knowledge bucket" is not that bad. Successful traditional teachers, the ones with a whiff of showbiz about them as well as old-fashioned knowledge of their subject, do indeed do something very like pour stuff into the minds of their student audiences. You get this a lot. You get people like lars saying that something doesn't happen, when what he really means is that in his opinion it shouldn't. Okay, different students receive and understand different bits of the performance, because if they are buckets then they are very complicated and rather selective buckets depending on what else they know and what they now would like to know, and also depending on which bits of their brains happen to be developing at that moment. Nevertheless, setting up a Niagara Falls of information, even of knowledge, and hoping that some of it gets caught in some of the buckets is a not totally contemptible way to educate.

As for "education equals school and teachers", well, that may not be where all or even all that much education takes place these days - as a proportion of all of it - but it's a big part of the story. And there is also the vitally important matter of what children really do learn at schools, the bad stuff I mean.

It's true that in recent days schools have, as it happens, been my main focus, but earlier I happened to be concentrating more on where computers and technology fitted into the education picture. I had a spell of focussing on maths teaching, both inside and outside schools. And there will be other little spells of interest like this focussing on all sorts of other things, many of which lars may be entertained by, and many of which he may disapprove of.

But I'm going to go on writing about schools and teachers and classrooms, (a) because it is an interesting subject in its own right, and also (b) because debates and stresses and strains within the official school system could lead to very big and very good changes in the future.

The dominant beliefs of the current education profession ever since the nineteen sixties have contained a strong libertarian strand, which is one of the very big reasons why traditional education is, for so many people, near to collapse. Remember that posting I did about what most educational researchers now believe. And maybe you also remember the two comments, from Michael Peach and from Alice Bachini, pointing out that the logic of this research is: forget about "schools" and just let children learn as and when they feel inclined, and in a far nicer place than most schools are? So the people who are now running the existing system actually don't really believe in keeping it going, and in many cases they don't believe in it at all.

However, what they do believe in is mostly too incoherent and self-contradictory to achieve anything, except harm to existing institutions.

Many "progressives", for example, believe in "freedom" but not in free markets, that is to say they believe in freedom but not in one of its most inevitable and characteristic consequences, a consequence which can only be eliminated by trampling all over freedom. Such progressives are thus incapable of devising a viable real world alternative to traditional schools, just as they are incapable of devising real world alternatives to anything else. However, the existing school system does allow them to push their anti-free-market propaganda, even as they fret about the fact that they are "pushing" anything at all, so they settle, very half-heartedly, for that. PC Prussianism, you might say.

Others react to the manifest failure of "progressive education" (i.e. the attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable) by lurching back to the old-fashioned orthodoxies, but in defiance of all that research which says, very persuasively, that there ought to be a different and better way to do things.

The only coherent opponents of traditional schooling whom I know of - the only coherent educational libertarians - are the home-schoolers and the non-schoolers, like Peach and Bachini, and, happily, many more besides.

I can perfectly understand why lars wants to turn his back on all the confusion and the bad faith, the coercion and the misery, that seethes within official schools. But I don't. I find it interesting, and I don't feel inclined to ignore it, any more than I ignored the Gulag Archipelago during the Cold War. I find it fertile soil to plant different and better ideas. If all libertarians just ignored the entire world of "official" education policy and official education research, and above all official education in the form of the official schools, they'd miss all this intellectual and (it's not too strong a word for the agonies often involved) spiritual turmoil.

So I bother with schools partly for the same reason that all subversives study the thing which they oppose. Know your enemy. But also - unlike lars? - I don't actually think that all schools are as bad as some of them are, that life at school for all children is as bad as it is for some children. I think that if there were no compulsory school attendance, and total consumer choice in education – in life itself - both for parents and for children, some institutions would thrive that would look remarkably like the schools we have now. There'd be the same sort of desks all pointing towards the front, the same sort of self-important pedagogues at the front holding forth, the same sort of testing to see what if anything had been learned. The difference is that there would also be the right to ignore all this if you didn't care for it, and the right to shop around between competing suppliers if something like this would serve your purpose.

Meanwhile, I think that all over the official school desert, there are oases of goodness to be found, of the sort that have an honourable future in a far more libertarian world. I am a subversive, but I am not a revolutionary. In fact I despise and detest revolutions. Revolutions are collective acts of self-indulgence which sacrifice people on the altar of mankind. I think I've somewhat strayed from lars' objections here. But never mind. Time I stopped.

Here endeth the lesson.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:40 AM
Category: How to teach
[2] [0]
December 16, 2002
The virtue of imperfect but persistent teaching

I did a posting earlier today for this blog. No, yesterday, it's now just past midnight. But during the brief time in the afternon when I might have posted it here, this blog was not working. I believe the "server" was "down". The technology involved in all this stuff is not my strong point, although I am learning about it, slowly. So I put this posting on samizdata.net instead.

It was about a teacher who, in my opinion and if my understanding of her own classroom report was anything to go by, had done rather less well than either she or Joanne Jacobs thought she had, although I'd be the first to admit that I probably wouldn't have done any better in similar circumstances and I dare say far worse.

One of the samizdata commenters thought that the lady I had criticised ought to get the sack. I'm guessing that he has his own educational "issues" with such people. But if what I wrote here on Saturday (in the posting just below this one), about a school severely afflicted by excessively high staff turnover, is anything to go by, having imperfect teachers who nevertheless stick around and do their best is a far better policy than sacking any teacher who ever makes a mistake, however minor, or for that matter even sacking one who exhibits a persistent weakness. What if this teacher can be a sarcastic so-and-so but sure talks up a storm when she's explaining (as she was) about Gutenberg?

I recall a remark made by the head teacher in Vile Bodies, the novel by Evelyn Waugh. He greets the novel's young protagonist, who is to start teaching at his boarding school deep in the countryside, thus: "I'm well aware that no-one seeks employment at an establishment like this without a very good reason which he is anxious to conceal." Something like that. Most of us can remember times when we've learned things from most unlikely and often severely imperfect and very nasty people.

I hope that the teacher whom I criticised over on samizdata does what I'm sure her pupils are doing, despite any mistakes that she may or may not be making (after all this was only my opinion), which is: learn, and improve, and get a bit smarter at what she's doing, day by day. If what I have written here about the educational value of blogging to the blogger is true, then she definitely will.

Maybe she'll read my samizdata posting. And maybe she'll even learn something from me and from those commenters about how to do her job a little bit better, although of that I am less confident. Personally I hate being criticised, especially when the criticism is constructive.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:38 AM
Category: How to teach
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