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Chronological Archive • December 22, 2002 - December 28, 2002
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 26, 2002
The Breakfast Club is now illegal

Now it seems to me that pupils can have civil rights. Or pupils can be made to be pupils whether they want to be pupils or not. But it's hard to see how both arrangements can be made simultaneously. But consider this story:

A 15-year-old schoolgirl is suing her education authority claiming that school punishments breached her civil rights, it emerged today. The case could lead to detentions being abolished in Scotland.

Freya McDonald, from Tomnavoulin in Morayshire, claims that 11 detentions in nine months for offences she describes as "trivial" disrupted her education and affected her health.

A solicitor for the girl and her mother, Annie, has now written to Moray council intimating their intention to sue under the European Convention on Human Rights, claiming the detentions were unlawful and seeking compensation for stress.

The family solicitor, Cameron Fyfe, confirmed that if successful the action could mean the end of detention as a punishment in Scotland's schools.

Under Article 5 of the European Convention, detention can only take place if there is a "lawful order".

He said this would mean that a detention due to run in a child's free time, as it had in Freya's case, could not come from the school itself but would need this legal authority.

Now part of me is delighted at all this. If you can't have human rights for children and compulsory education, and if you are going to have human rights for children similar to those accorded to adults, then what will happen to compulsory education is exactly what I want to happen to it.

Yet the truth surely is that a lot of people are going to suffer from the appalling philosophical and legal incoherence of all this. No one is saying: "Compulsory education is an affront to human rights." But that is what should be said, by someone involved in this argument, for this argument to be recognised for what it is. Instead, the illusion is being allowed to persist that children can simultaneously be treated like people with rights, and as the legitimate objects of compulsion.

I think most of us are familiar with the idea that good teachers are not so much teachers who follow good rules, as teachers who are clear and honest and consistent and impartial in following whatever rules they do follow. A consistently and honestly authoritarian teacher is preferable to an inconsistently liberal teacher. It seems to me that the adults involved in this case are behaving like bad teachers in this sense.

The confusion is going to be bad for children, bad for parents, bad for teachers, and good only for lawyers.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:11 AM
Category: Compulsion
[4] [1]
December 25, 2002

Happy Christmas everyone! No homework today.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:44 PM
Category: This Blog
[1] [0]
December 24, 2002
"You'll get it in your own time"

There's been a comment on an earlier posting here about the need (or not depending on what you think) for the minority of children who don't take naturally to reading to be made to learn it good and early. I guess a lot of readers of this this I don't copy and paste it in a new posting, and it is worth reading. So here it is, from Fritz:

People who cannot yet read, can still learn. With access to the world, to TV and computer and books on tape, and a helper to read things to them when they want to know something that needs reading, pre-reading children are learning all the time. And when they do start to read, it comes fast and furious.

Perhaps the 20% who have trouble learning to read, would be able to sort it out by their early teens (or earlier) if they are not analyzed and labeled as having a particular sort of difficulty early-on. I've seen children learn to read, with only the help they ask for in learning about how letters sound and what a word says, and being read to when they want to be, much later than they would have to learn in order to be accepted as 'normal' in a school. I suspect such children would be labeled challenged in some way when they confuse d and b and p and q, and can't remember some of the letters' sounds. If not made to feel bad about not knowing these things, if encouraged with a 'you'll get it, in your own time', and helped to learn about these things in ways that make sense to them, I suspect that most children will be reading when they are ready. Maybe some of those problems are caused by pushing children to read too early, before they are ready. Any problem will become apparent and solutions can be found.

Anyhow, that is an alternative vision to the 'compelled literacy' one.

This is what I want to be true. But I guess "early teens" will sound to many like an awfully long time to wait. And what of those children who don't have all that "help" they're going to need if they can't read for themselves?

If a few Nobel Prize winners were to email me with the story of how they only started reading at fourteen, that might ease my mind.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:51 PM
Category: Home education
[1] [0]
The dog pack gets its kill (and the public sector becomes a tiny bit more impossible to run)

Most of the people reading this story are probably thinking either "good riddance to the mad PC-obsessed hag" or "paedophiles are a real problem - she shouldn't have had to resign".

This is the story:

A headteacher who banned photographic equipment from a nativity play for fear of the images being manipulated and circulated on the internet by paedophiles has resigned.

Pamela Nunn, of Homefield first school in Bradwell, near Great Yarmouth, said the decision, made with the school's governors, to ban cameras from the church hall in which the children were performing, had caused such a row with parents that she had decided to resign.

She announced her resignation to parents after the performance on Friday.

But for me this next one was the key paragraph:

She told the Eastern Daily Press newspaper: "I have seen too many colleagues finish their careers with stress, and feel I owe it to my family to go now."

So what do I think the story is?

I think it's the same as my December 21st story about that "death threat", namely the way that the media, including such things as blogs, now wield a disproportionate amount of power over state education. It's not the mere fact of any old Tom, Mike or Brian being able to read the story or what we suppose to be the story that is doing the damage by itself. Nor is it the inherent absurdity of the public sector that sector where no one is really in charge and where the lines of responsibility and accountability are liable to turn to mush under any sort of stress or during any sort of crisis. It's the combination of the two.

Yes. (The word "yes" during a blog posting signifies that things are actually being learned by the blogger even as he blogs, right there somewhere during the previous few sentences.)

So: yes. Blogs are the lowest form of media life that there are. They are the media equivalent of the single cell organism. Nevertheless when you run a blog, and especially a "specialist" blog devoted to discussing "serious issues", like this one, you become a definite part, however small, of the media.

And what I have learned by being a blogger is why the public sector has stopped working, not from the moment it got started in its modern form, but since "the media" got into their stride and became serious expressions of popular interest and enthusiasm rather than just aristocratic hobbies or government bureaucracies. The public sector was always a bit of a shambles. Now, insofar as it is allowed to be public at all (which is not all of it by any means) it is a public shambles.

This wretched head teacher woman is nagged by some hyper-worried parent into banning video-ing of nativity plays. That sets off the other parents, who then feel that they are themselves being accused of being in league with the paedophiles.

The hacks smell a row, and pile in, and stir it shamelessly.

If it looks like it's about to die down they ring around all the potentially quarrelling parties and get them back at each other's throats by asking them loaded questions and quoting the answers totally stripped of all the qualifications and back-trackings, first to each other, and then in their newspapers and radio and TV reports. Because why? Because the media might succeed in getting A Result. In this case if they keep it up, they might get That Woman to jack it in or be fired.

And guess what? That Woman has jacked it in. She isn't paid enough. She doesn't, ultimately, have enough invested in her school. Bottom line: it's not her school. It's The Community's school. It is owned not by any recognisable person or persons, but by that swirling, howling abstraction, The People, who in this case might as well be a dog pack. At any moment, this dog pack, in the form of the governors, the local politicians, even, if you please, the Minister of Education himself, might decide that "she has to go" and start issuing hostile press releases against her, in other words some mighty respectable beasts might join the dog pack at any moment.

No individual has the power to stand against these forces. That's what makes them so evil.

There is no one who can face the mob and say: "To hell with you all. This is my place. I run it how I run it. If you don't like it you can say what you like and you can keep your children away from it and tell everyone else you know to do likewise. But you won't get rid of me or change my way of doing things, and if you carry on with your dog-packing in my corridors and outside my front door then I'll call the police and have you beaten back with wooden clubs. End of story."

No one can say that. Which means that the story never ends until there's a kill.

There are two answers.

The wrong answer is to shut down the media (including now the blogs), disinvent the sixties, the seventies, the eighties, the nineties and the noughts, and hand the world back to a self-perpetuating aristocracy of self-perpetuating aristocrats who can do what they like, unchallenged, unmocked by the journos, no matter what they do.

The right answer is to clarify property rights. Get it sorted who owns what. That way, when the dog pack starts to howl there will be people doing education who can shout it down and subjugate it, as and when.

The first can't happen, so the second will. People will simply refuse to take these impossible jobs in the bits of the public sector that really are public. I recall reading not long ago that an idyllic little primary school in Wales was advertising for a new Head. But it couldn't find one, and it was going to have to close. This time the dog pack took the form not of insane media people, but of insane civil servants deluging the wretched incumbent with insane forms to fill in which is a sort of institutionalised version of dog pack rule, if you think about it. "Make sure that nothing like this can ever happen again!" etc. etc.

The result may (or may not) be a new private sector school springing up, just as soon as the locals can get it arranged (or for as long as they can't be bothered). If that happens, the people running this school on the one hand and the local journos and bloggers on the other will be able to square up to each other on equal terms, and solicit support from locals either for the school or for a big local row about it. Sorted. If nothing, then nothing.

As for the "public sector" as a whole no such single solution beckons. If the Minister of Education himself were to resign, there would be a huge mob of people all desperate to replace him, however insane the job might prove to be. So the public sector of education will have to crumble away bit by bit, and fail to improve blank cheque by blank cheque. And it is. Pity, but what can you do?

A Happy Christmas to all my readers.

Tomorrow and Boxing Day (as we Brits call the day after Dec 25) will be treated here like a weekend, as will the day after that. And the two days after that really are the weekend. During all these days, I may put things up, but I may not.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:26 PM
Category: This and that
[1] [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 22, 2002
Quote unquote

"As students throughout Northeast Florida start winter break, teachers say there are plenty of educational activities they can do at home."

Hot off the virtual press in Jacksonville Florida. Thanks to Daryl Cobranchi for this startling revelation. ("You don't say.")

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:44 AM
Category: Home education
[0] [0]