The ones that got away.

Sometimes, often in the long night, we think back over things we’ve done. After a good day, these are often cinematic valedictions of the brilliance of our achievements, the goal scored, the child saved, the answer to the quiz question about the Battle of Crecy that seemed to so impress that beautiful student-dentist all those years ago.

After a bad day two ghosts haunt me in the milky darkness of our bedroom. Both are students. One is a year 7 who left our school, the other a year 11 with whom I could not make the necessary connection.

The year 7 came on a wing and a prayer. On ‘senior staff call-out’ (the real senior staff were in a meeting) I picked him up several times in the space of a week. I was stressed, tired and pulled away from something really important when I was told to collect him from MFL. After some defiance in the classroom I’m afraid I lost my temper and shouted good and loud at him until he left the room and sidled off to the internal exclusion room. He stopped in the doorway of the classroom just long enough to shout ‘FUCK OFFFFFF’ in my face (this was the second of the two times this happened to me in 13 years of teaching there).

There followed a temporary and then permanent exclusion. He was, I console myself, already well on the way towards this. But, I can’t help feeling that I pushed him over the edge, and that had I continued to ‘be the adult’, in the way that I expect of myself and the people I work with, that some other conclusion might have been reached. Exclusion has a terrible impact on pupils, I wish that I had handled myself differently – each interaction is a chance to change the future.

The year 11 had started off well in year 7, but became angry as her schooling went on. I had no idea why, and if anyone else did they neither found a way of explaining to me, or dealing with it well in school. She had achieved very well in school until year 9, and then fell off an emotional cliff.

I count myself as a good teacher of GCSE, at all levels of past attainment. I pride myself on not giving up on a student, on never telling a class that ‘this is dull, but we’ve got to learn it’, on helping them to see that I love teaching them, and that I love what I’m teaching them, and that together we’re going to do really well.

None of this worked with this child. She challenged, everything, and each re-statement of the rules was greeted with an escalation of challenge. Removal to other teachers was the only way to get the rest of the class the attention from me that was needed. The only way around her attitude was to ignore, or to acquiesce. I tried a bit of tactical ignoring, of lowering the stakes of the confrontations by keeping them calm and low key. Praising when she did well (which she could easily do) was quickly abandoned as it resulted in a backlash of dreadful proportion. These short term tactics led to longer term problems. She spent the last 8 weeks of the course doing history with a TA in another room.

Again, I console myself with the knowledge that other teachers had the same problem, but my lack of answers, my lack of purchase on her learning left her with poor qualifications, and me with a second regret to reflect upon in my long nights.

Why am I telling you this? I’m not sure really – possibly I’m just getting it off my chest. I worry that all the talk of schools being ‘engines of social mobility’ and our ambitions for our students and ourselves can leave us exposed to dangerous feelings of failure when things don’t go well. Doctors’ patients sometimes die. Students sometimes don’t learn, despite our best efforts, and sometimes because of our mistakes. We have to learn to live with this.

Project Halpin: ‘Cultural Literacy’ (2) – Hirsch, Knowledge and the Learner

This is part of a series of posts that I’ve been writing over a much longer period than I originally planned.  The idea came from a lecture given by David Halpin, in which he discussed the need for us to approach and listen ideas that seemed antithetical to our own.   On the back of that experience and of a growing awareness of the ‘attitudinal bubble’ that I live in, I’ve been reading books which, on the face of it, I might not agree with.

The latest book is E.D. Hirsh’s ‘Cultural Literacy’. In my last post I discussed some of the things I liked about the book, and my concern with the foundations of Hirsch’s theory – that faster reading is a cure-all for educational ills and problems of learning.  In this post I’m starting to discuss the most obvious problem, Hirsch’s somewhat limited conception of what it means to learn, and his curiously passive learner, which I’ll follow up in my next post.

For Hirsch, the underlying assumption of learning is one way. Rather than transaction we have transmission. Rather than active construction we have accretion. Knowledge must come first, communication second. This also renders the world as a passive place, to which we can only apply pre-learned knowledge, which was itself received as a transmission from a more knowledgeable other.

Hirsch’s model of learning is one of assimilation – making things fit in with what we already know.  This is directly related to his focus on reading fluency;  ‘slowness of reading beyond a certain point makes assimilation of complex meaning impossible’ (P.57).  So forming complex meaning is only possible through assimilation and only when this assimilation is achieved through fluent reading. This, in turn, can only occur when reading things, in respect of which the reader is already knowledgeable, or which are culturally familiar to them.   This logically leads us to the conclusion that facts, knowledge must be learned before they can be applied. Assimilation of material here is overlaying confirmation of what is already learned, what is pre-assimilated.

For Hirsch this assimilation is natural – and one dimensional, relying as it does on memorisation and rote-learning. Hirsch objects to the ‘pious rather than realistic’ rejection of this method of learning that he detects in contemporary educationalists. Without supporting evidence beyond the anecdotal Hirsch asserts that children at an early age have an ‘almost instinctive urge to learn specific tribal tradition […] and are eager to master the materials that authenticate their membership in adult society’ (30). He points to the eagerness with which children hoover up the rules of their favourite sport as an example of how ‘memorisation’ should be re-examined as a way of helping children to learn.

This is probably not the time or place to rehearse arguments about rote-learning -v- strategies and ‘which works best’.  Suffice to say that for me, using ‘memorisation’ as a way of learning things seems to be something of a tautology – “We memorise to remember things”.  It also sets up something of a dichotomy which I would argue doesn’t really exist in most classrooms.  It’d be hard to find even the most traditional teacher ‘just telling them’, or relying only on memorisation of facts.  Similarly, it would be hard to find a ‘progressive’ teacher who deals only in subjective opinion, or who facilitates learning only through discovery.  In practice most teachers will tell some things, encourage memorisation of some things, facilitate exploration of some issues, and use discovery and suspense in relation to others.

Willingham suggests that the kind of knowledge that we might pick up only through rote-learning is going to be shallow.  Hirsch can just about make the claim that rote-learning could be a useful method of assimilating new knowledge only because he has set a low bar on the depth of that knowledge.  Hirsh directs us to teach a broad and shallow set of knowledge.  I would argue that by not encouraging students to see the deep structures of problems, shying away from analogies and exploration, and by failing to point out that there are problems with some (not all!) items or types of knowledge, we risk restricting the extent to which knowledge can be transferred to new problems.

We might also missing a trick or two as educators.   There will be key pieces of information that we all want students to know, and to be able to recall.  Repetitive rote learning will play a part in learning these facts.  However, we’ve got to make sure that these are the right kind of facts to be learned in this way, that these facts are correct, and that we give students a chance to see the deeper relations and structures between them.

As an example of the way that the ‘knowledge turn’ in pedagogy risks cutting off learning opportunities from our students, let’s take a look at the idea of ‘knowledge organisers’ in history.  I’ve used these – though I called them ‘glossaries’, and often I took the idea of ‘advance’ organisers as a model (for more on this see Ausubel’s ideas, set out in  Their most recent popularity stems from a post by Joe Kirby on his brilliantly helpful website ‘pragmatic reform’.

There are some really great things about this – the careful thinking that has gone into deciding which items of knowledge the students will need, the focus on common spelling errors, key quotes to add compelling context and colour to students’ knowledge.  This is Hirsch in practice, in that brief, and shallow descriptions in the manner of vocabulary definitions are given.  However, in dealing with some, more complicated, concepts in a shallow way important misconceptions are introduced.

For instance, if we take a closer look at the section on ‘political vocabulary’ we can see that ‘government’ is defined as ‘the political party with the most MPs in parliament’, and ‘political party’ as ‘a group organising to win an election’.  These are obviously problematic when studying Apartheid – the government was much more than the National party, and the ANC, whilst definitely being a political party, as a banned political party was unable to organise to win an election.

Multi-faceted historical contexts are also flattened. Democracy is not defined here, it seems to be taken for granted that students will understand perhaps a platonic model of democracy.  The very point about Apartheid era South Africa is that there were two competing models of democracy. Supporters of the regime would have denied that their country was un-democratic.   Often we can give helpful definitions, but that is not always true, and often we need to do much more. I’m not suggesting for a minute that Joe Kirby doesn’t do just that, but I worry that the impression is that all the knowledge needed can be fitted on one side of A4, and delivered to passively waiting students.

Of course, many people use KOs, and other similar techniques in lots of ways, but these all seem to be much more than ‘memorisation’, and in ways that build much deeper knowledge structures.  Toby French has a great post ( which puts his use of KOs in the context of his wider practice, for instance.  I would go further, however.  Students need time to assimilate, accommodate, test and refine their understanding of concepts about a historical context.  We might start by exploring what democracy, what a political party means to them today, before comparing that with the views and experiences of those living in South Africa during Apartheid.   We might then ask them to fill in a few knowledge organisers (or to explain some concepts) so that we can assess the development of their understanding, and refine our own planning for future learning.

In other words, teachers also need to listen to their students’ ideas, not only to correct their students, but so that they as teachers can refine and perhaps improve their own understanding.  In fact this final point is the thing that people have been trying to teach me for years – from my PGCE tutor, Anna Pendry who gently suggested that I read some more history books, to the parent who rightly complained when I mistakenly told his son that Sefton Delmer wrote for the Daily Mail. The wonderful students who have asked me hard questions that forced me back to my books, and the wonderful teachers who have made me look again at source materials or asked me to think about how I approach what I thought was a familiar topic have, over the years helped me to see that I am also learning.  Unlike Hirsch, I recognise that as teachers we also need to approach ‘truth’ afresh, and sometimes through the eyes of others.  Attempting the delivery of a chunked up world does not help me, or my students, to do that.


Project Halpin: ‘Cultural Literacy’ (1) – Hirsch and the Reader

This is part of a series of posts that I’ve been writing over a much longer period than I originally planned.  The idea came from a lecture given by David Halpin, in which he discussed the need for us to approach and listen ideas that seemed antithetical to our own.   On the back of that experience and of a growing awareness of the ‘attitudinal bubble’ that I live in, I’ve been reading books which, on the face of it, I might not agree with.

The latest book is E.D. Hirsh’s ‘Cultural Literacy’.  Hirsch started to impinge on my consciousness in a serious way in 2010 when it became apparent that Michael Gove and Nick Gibb would be using insights gleaned from their reading of his work in their reform of the National Curriculum.   At that time I possessed only a slight and prejudiced view of Hirsch’s ideas.  I am sure that this view was coloured almost entirely by the fact that he had been embraced by the incoming Conservative education leadership.

Reading the work has therefore been a real education – not the least because of the message of hope that one can read into it – that knowledge offers a (the only) route out of educational and, by implication, social disadvantage.   This has also been an important re-education for me.  I have re-focused in turn on the importance of the knowledge that my students have, not just the knowledge that I have as a teacher.   I’ve always seen my job as to teach students knowledge that they don’t have, but it took me some years to consciously focus on the fact that I’d therefore need to consider the things that they already knew (or didn’t know).

Hirsch also makes some important points about the way we have constructed curricula over the last twenty years, which resonate with my experiences as a history teacher. In our concern to choose a history curriculum that is not oppressive or irrelevant to those that we’re teaching we have instead shifted our focus onto formal skills in history – rather than make hard choices about what to teach and what not to teach.  As we’ll see in a later post, I think that Hirsch also ducks these hard choices.

I don’t think this abdication was ever as complete here in England as Hirsch suggests has been the case in American public schools.  This is especially the case in history classrooms.  We have always been concerned in history to teach an overview, a framework.  This is apparent even in the structure of most KS3 curricula in the schools I visit, which remain chronological and which touch on the big features of the chronological landscape – the Romans in Britain, Medieval Britain, Early Modern Tudor and Stuart Britain, Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions and which finish with a bloody flourish in the 20th Century.

I disagree too with Hirsch attempt to place all the blame for this on Rousseau, Dewey and romanticism. It’s hard to remain romantic when actually teaching in a school – pragmatic pressures such as the struggle to spark interest, to justify one’s practice (and indeed existence) in the face of absurd and arbitrary accountability regimes and resultant managerialism.  There has no doubt been an easy re-course to a crude form of constructivism in schools, but one could argue that the move towards a formalist curriculum is actually an entirely rational response to the situation in which teachers have found themselves.  Performativity and formalism go hand in hand. Performance management trickles down through students’ targets and into pupil friendly mark-schemes, flight paths and ‘exam technique’ interventions.

Hirsch is also convincing that knowledge has an impact on the fluency of reading. Early in the book, before looking at his own research, Hirsch describes a study which found that two groups of readers, one American, and one Indian each found it easier to read articles which were about weddings from their own cultures.    Hirsch’s own work on the impact of knowledge on reading fluency and other research is used to show that background knowledge makes reading more fluent.

However, the extent of the improvements in fluency, and the impact of this improvement on learning are not made clear.  In describing the eureka moment that has informed his work on knowledge in the school curriculum, it is interesting that Hirsch takes the decision not to directly compare the fluency of readers ‘with’ and ‘without’ knowledge on the same graph.  The difference is not as great as it appears when one makes the direct comparison – around 4-16% increase in the words per minute rate for each quintile (estimated from the graphs in the book) between readers familiar and un-familiar with the content of a text.

Hirsch makes a convincing argument for the role of a basic level of fluency in discussion of the mechanics of short term memory and the clogging of this system if too much new or confusing information is presented, but there is nothing here to suggest whether this acts as a  floor level or whether learning  improves or increases the more fluent one’s reading is.  The implication is that there are two states – ‘fluent’ or ‘clogged’, and no middle ground, but there is nothing to suggest what the level of ‘clogged’ is.

Hirsch was originally looking at the effect of style on reading rates, by comparing the rates of people reading original pieces of text that were also stylistically degraded by the researchers.  The effect of prior knowledge on reading fluency seems to be removed altogether if we compare the rates of those reading degraded texts on topics that they’re familiar with, and those they’re un-familiar with.  In comparing college and university students reading about Grant and Lee, both reading stylistically degraded text Hirsch found similar rates of reading.

If the impact of knowledge on fluency was as great as suggested, might we expect instead that prior knowledge should make up for the poor writing in the stylistically degraded texts, or even to enable informed readers to leap over the barrier presented by the degradation in the text?   If we want to improve the fluency of our readers Hirsch’s graphs suggest that we should be doing more than teaching them more knowledge – that there are other factors that might affect the way we approach text, or which might limit how fluent our reading of a text can be.  One of the most important would, from this evidence, seem to be the quality of the writing of the text that one is reading.  The implication for teachers is that we should choose our texts carefully, and work hard to make our written communications accessible.

I realise I’m at risk of being condemned as a ‘knowledge denier’, so I should be clear that I think we should want our students to know more.  What I am pointing out, and this is a theme I will return to in a later post, is that in focusing only on the role of knowledge and on reading fluency, in the face of his own contrary evidence, Hirsch is placing all the deficit in the minds of the learner.  For Hirsch, the message is that there is nothing else we can do as teachers other than give more knowledge, nothing as writers that we can do to make reading more accessible, nothing else that we can do to equip students who find themselves reading material with content that they don’t already know.  It’s a one-way street.

Books I read about the Restoration of Charles II.

Helen on Twitter asked me today if I had any recommended reading for someone new to the Restoration period.   It seems like quite a long time since I wrote the book for Hodder, but as many teachers will be starting to think about how they might teach this next year, it seems that this might be a good time for me to set out what I read.

This list is quite eccentric, and doesn’t include any of the journal articles that I read. This is mainly because I didn’t practice what I preach, and failed to make a running reference list. Sorry about that… Anyway:

General Background Reading. 

 Can heartily recommend the Jackson, though I didn’t read it until after I had finished writing my book.  Of all the books on the list, read this if you’re new to Chas II.
The Restoration itself

 Can’t beat Ronald Hutton.  Understanding the different pressures on the Restoration settlement is crucial, and Hutton sets these out very well. Bliss is a very good short introduction – with clear analysis as well as narrative.  I’d read this one second after the Jackson if I were new to this.

Politics and Government.

Patterson most helpful here in setting out and explaining the shifting positions and conflicts between Council, Monarch and Parliament.  This would be the third book I’d read if approaching this for the first time.


One of the important things about the course is helping students see the bigger picture, the seeds of economic and imperial growth in the events of Charles II’s reign. Both of these books help with that.  Ferguson is good for big picture, though a little overblown.  Canny is a good survey.

Women in the Restoration period. 

The Fraser is brilliantly written and comprehensive, full of just the sort of interesting stories that history lessons need.


Lots of the spec is focussed on London. Picard is great for atmosphere, Porter is a joy to read, but is not just about the Restoration.

War, Plague and Fire 

The Jones is really good on naval tactics, the relationships between War, aristocracy and the coffers of the exchequer (and through this its relation to Parliament).  On the fire, Hanson is a bit fluffy, but a good page turner and possibly a source of interesting ‘interpretations’. Slack is absolutely forensic in the detail of the impact of the Plague.


 Speaking of interpretations, I found that the pictures and text of Ladybird books were a really good source for these. Would also recommend Our Island Story by Marshall, and G. M. Trevelyan  for same reason.

A trip to the Black Country Living Museum

A month ago, we packed the family into our ageing Megan, and travelled to the Black Country to see relatives and visit one of my favourite Museums, the Black Country Museum.  Sharing a hotel room with your tweenage family was, it turns out, a bit like sleeping in a busy badger set. Sighing, coughing, burping and breaking wind keeps us all awake as, outside, urban foxes voice the sleepless frustration that bubbles away inside.  In the morning we emerged blinking to breakfast next door at the brewer’s fayre – the idiopathic y adding little authenticity to the atmosphere of disinfectant and yesterday’s grease.

Then on to the Black Country Living Museum. I have been to the museum several times during my time teaching in Reading. That we were prepared to travel from Reading to Stourbridge with a coach full of kids to visit the museum year after year illustrates how highly we thought of the museum as a learning experience.  Put briefly, I loved that trip when I was teaching, and loved the way that the children learned from it.

One of the great things about the museum is the way it puts human scale against the Industrial. Maddy hates ‘ humanoids’ as she puts it – hating being at the bottom of the unhappy valley where ‘almost humans’ explain things that have emotional significance. All of us NT’s enjoyed the way that these helped us see the individual stories that in turn enabled us to see the bigger picture, and Maddy was able to listen to and later to recall with interest their stories of underground food and drink – ‘tack’ underground as well as the dangers of each of the different methods of digging out the coal.

Most memorable from their point of view was the young man sitting in the mine bottom, waiting for the pit pony and driver at a ventilation door, so unimportant that he was not allowed a candle. We imagined the stories that the child would tell itself in the dark – waiting for the sound of the hooves or the glimmer of a candle to disrupt the 12 hour shift, sitting on the floor of the tunnel in silence.

The museum covers industrial technical history – in the shape of the mine already discussed, but also using a working Newcomen EngineUntitled

This engine was used to pump water from mines – it is amazing in action – dramatic smoke and a swinging pump arm full of crashing power in a tall room full of heat. Underneath the machine is the weirdly hypnotic ash-pit. My young nephew spent a good 5 minutes watching the embers flitting down to the cooling ash pile.

UntitledAbove ground, the first houses you see are earlier than many of the other domestic settings, Pitt’s cottage, a one story self-built home, which contrasts with the back-to-backs further in to the museum, one of which is set slightly later in 1891 (and highly suggestive of overcrowding and poverty) and the other, set much more comfortably in 1924.

Where I think the museum is missing a trick is in not making more of the change over time (or perhaps even change over geography) aspects of the different houses and displays that they have gathered from around the black country. There is an element of this – many of the shops on the top row are more obviously from the 1930s – though the school is earlier – perhaps late 1800s.

UntitledOften however we’re just ‘in the past’. There’s a wealth of information on the website, but not much available as you wander around. It would take a strong guide to explain the transitions and contrasts between buildings and chronological periods, but I think this would be a worthwhile aim of the museum.

UntitledThere are very strong guides at the museum – the children particularly enjoyed the lady in the Chemist shop. Despite looking the model of idealised Victorian female propriety she was more than willing to delight in explaining the use of suppositories. She also showed the children how ‘the Victorians’ made pills, which they were enthralled by.


It’s this handiness, the skill and often very hard labour involved in production that stays with me after a trip to the BCM. This is especially true of that the different kinds of metal work that the Black Country specialised in. Watching a man working in the Nail Shop not only shows the great skills involved in working metal and also in working metal so quickly that they could make a living out of it (there’s a great video on the page to show you how it was done), but the physical nature of the labour – the hardness of the work. The hammers, mangles, wash tubs, fire grates, carpet beaters, brushes, mops, files and other tools are on display in areas around the museum – in shops, in the hands of dummies, laid out on the floors of houses as if momentarily dropped or left. When you step back and consider how much of the work achieved by people using those tools is now achieved through the use of energy (in the form of fossil fuels, mostly) you realise how much the consumption of such energy has changed our lives.

UntitledI’m reading (slowly, it’s very long!) Frank Trentmann’s ‘Empire of Things’, which alongside this trip has made me realise how much today’s consumption of ‘goods’ is based on the provision of things like water, energy and sanitation that allows us to operate them, but which also gives us the time to operate and enjoy them. This is the other thing that I think the BCLM is perhaps missing – it’s implicit in the gas lamps, the coal scuttles and the water pipes, and in the bridges, canals and trolley buses, but I think that it too could be brought out more.

I’ll end this rambling set of reflections with what was a real treat. I’m a wannabe baker (isn’t everyone these days) and as a family we really liked looking into the Victorian bakery. The heat (it was a cold day) was very welcome, the smells and the bread, basic human nourishment, alongside the excellent volunteer guide, made us think very carefully about how people lived, how they fed themselves, and enjoyed life despite the difficulties. Last week we watched the excellent ‘Victorian Bakers‘ on the BBC iplayer and recognised the bakery on the second episode of the show. We were really gripped by the way the programme explored the nature of bread production over time – how it changed, what stayed the same, how the meaning of bread itself changed over time.

Victorian England, and the Victorian Black Country in particular wasn’t one ‘thing’ or even a set of different class-based ‘things’ – it was a time of unprecedented change in almost every aspect of the way people lived, ate, socialised, organised, travelled, and how they voted and persuaded each other – which is what the Victorian Bakers and the Victorian Slum BBC programmes were so good at helping us to see. If I had one wish for the BCM it would be that they found ways to explain this in more depth – perhaps even to help us walk though, in and out of these changes and make explicit comparisons and contrasts.

A personal archaeology of skills.

500px-bifaz_con_percutor_blandoI first became aware of the possibility of being a writer* during my professional legal training. Before then I experienced only moderate success, and limited satisfaction, when I wrote. I struggled to communicate my ideas and lacked confidence that I could structure an argument or marshal evidence.

However my awareness of a crucial change came not as a result of learning to argue. There was no dramatic damascene moment in which my mock-trial performance convinced me, or a thrilled audience, that I was to be the next Michael Mansfield. Truth is, my advocacy skills are distinctly lacklustre. I go red. Over adrenalized, I splutter, and angrily forget crucial words and arguments.

No, my awareness of a transformation into someone who thought they might, possibly, be able to write came as I was taught to draft contracts.

Contracts are attempts to explain and describe a reality – an agreement between parties. They also attempt to cater for known and unknown situations that will occur in the future. Drafting them requires general skills – methodical working, careful checking of details, clarity of aims as well as specific ones – careful definition of terms, building the mechanics of information flow through the instrument, defining and then engaging legal subroutines in particular circumstances. You also need to know a lot – contract law, rules about consumer protection, about product safety, regulation, taxation, attestation, consideration, the list goes on.

Writing these contracts taught me the value of a plan, which then changed, of key terms, which were then adapted, of structures, which had to be re-structured, and of checking, drafting, re-drafting, looking things up, testing and re-visiting. They taught me to look at things from the point of view of my client, from the view of their business partners, and from that of other legal professionals who might read it in the future in an attempt to understand the parties’ agreement and intentions. The contract had to protect the interests of the first, allow the second to recover the legitimate advantage that the parties had agree would be their ‘consideration’ under that agreement and give the third enough information to enforce that agreement in case of dispute.

How was I taught this? I was taught what the bits of a contract did, just as everyone else in my class was, and the kinds of things you have to take into account when taking instructions. I was taught the laws and conventions that govern the formation of legal agreements, and how these related to contract drafting. We were all taught this.

I know this sounds daft, ridiculous but, unlike for most people in that class, for me drafting contracts was fun and even exhilarating. [Alan Partridge]I took to drafting a contract like one of David Attenborough’s peregrine falcons takes to the New York skyline. Yes, I got into scrapes, false starts, mistimed dives, but I was held aloft by thermals, could see the skyscrapers, the trees, the landscape and the details [/Alan Partridge]. Not everyone could do this – but I could. I could do it well, with an enjoyable, wing-beating, effort.

But did this awareness, this enjoyment emerge from earlier experiences, was it because of what I already knew, or what I could already do? Why was I able to dive into this? Why did I take to it?

I think it was because I spent my early teenage years programming computers. I had a ZX81 which I taught to swear on screen (once spent a lovely afternoon teaching my uncle’s Dragon to actually say ‘bugger’ in response to certain key presses). Eventually I turned my ’81 into an alarm system for my bedroom. Then I was given a Spectrum into which I would pour hours of typing – entering and then debugging programmes taken from computer enthusiast magazines. I learned how to structure, to test, to go-back-and-fix.

Why, in turn, was I able to invest such time, why was I able to understand how the different parts of a programme fitted together?

When I was much younger I often played with a ‘Bigtrack’ robot – using simple keypad commands to negotiate the smooth floors of our new-build 70s semi, in order to deliver ‘just in time’ Lego bricks to the road layout where I was learning to build parts out of other parts. Bricks into doors, floors, windows, into houses, houses into towns. At the same time I loved taking things apart – my grandad would bring round old radios for me to take to bits – ask questions about, crunch underfoot. I played at putting things together and at taking them apart.

From first principles of deconstruction and construction, to learning about physical movement then how information can move and flow through text, how routes through a programme are constructed by routines, subroutines, blocks of stored data mediated by defined and fluid variables into defined terms, clauses, sub-clauses and sections, I travelled towards being able to write well (or better at least!). I transferred this growing understanding, these skills to new and different domains, one after the other. Later I used the same skills to help me conceive, draft, re-draft and improve pieces of non-fiction writing, first on various OU courses, then in writing summaries and worksheets for pupils. After this I moved on to writing for websites, a podcast and then several books. At each stage I picked up new skills and knowledge, and new dispositions, but these all built on the same skills – the same bits of my brain lighting up and modifying with each task – as had lit up all those years before when I typed:

10 Print ‘Hello Ed’
20 Goto 10.


*this doesn’t mean being a professional writer, or earning money from writing, but _being_ someone who interacts with the world partly through writing, who enjoys it almost as much as he hates it, but who has to do it .

Just take the phones off them

school-32616_1280Been thinking about this for a long time – years in fact, as teacher, but it’s taken some things happening to us as a family to convince me that smartphones should not be given to children until they’re really old enough to understand the risks associated with them.

I’m not saying that technology doesn’t have a part to play in the development or the learning of children – it does (though probably not as much as I thought it did 10 years ago), nor that children should never see a screen in school. I just think that the potential benefits of having a smartphone are outweighed, by quite a long way, by the damage they can cause.

Phones cause self-image problems, facilitate bullying, are a conduit for sharing pornography, hate imagery and they pose a personal safety risk. I would argue that most children are unable to really understand the nature or extent of those risks. What’s more, phones distract children from learning when they’re in school – and they stop families from talking together when they’re at home. I’m not sure that there are many upsides – what positive things do children actually use their phones for?  Do any scattered examples of ‘great things my kid has done with their phones’ counterbalance the great harm that phones are doing elsewhere?

Following our discovery that our eldest (year 8) was chatting online with strangers (despite lots of discussions about the dangers of this, and other online risks).  So, we took her phone from her – with the intention of giving it back in 6 months. That time is nearly up – and we’ve decided that we’re not going to give it back, ever.

Since we took the phone away she’s been a much happier person – she’s sleeping better, doesn’t spend hours covering her face with make up and pouting at her phone, she spends less time having feuds with others, and much less time worrying about her appearance.  She’s playing computer games again, and reading many more books than she did before – in other words she’s free to be a child.

So, anecdotally (yeah, I know) it seems they can thrive without them, and if we all agreed that kids would be better off with a so that we can call them if we need to, I hope that lots of similar problems would diminish. So, why can’t we just take the phones off them?

Writing to Argue

writingMy undergraduates are unwilling to argue, in person, or in writing. Their essays are often surveys of a scene, descriptions of a landscape. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a survey if that’s what you’ve been asked to do – but I want my students to have an informed opinion – and to have practised the art of coming to an opinion – so that they can work out when it’s necessary to change their minds about something.

So, in order to do that we’ve been presenting arguments.  This is something that I have done in the past with AS students who have often struggled in the change from more descriptive answers at GCSE to the direction and argument of an KS5 essay.  The discussion that follows will clearly show that my thinking is often influenced by my practice as a history teacher and the professional literature in Teaching History journal from the HA, or books written by teachers or academics such as Christine Counsel.  As I am still new to HE – I’m painfully aware that there is a body of evidence and practice which I’m starting to explore. On the off chance that you’re reading this and you think I should really know about something that I don’t – please feel free to let me know!

We’re coming to the end of a module that I’m teaching on “Special Educational needs and Inclusion” which has focused on the history and conceptual underpinnings of ‘inclusion’, and the tension between this and ‘differentiation’. Part of the assessment is for the students to write a short essay on an aspect of inclusion – they have a choice of questions, but each one requires them to come to an informed judgement.

The issues:

My students see essay writing as a kind of complicated obstacle course.  They like to tackle each part as it comes to them,  instead of lifting their heads to the horizon.  This leads them to focus on issues such as ‘how to write a good introduction’ or what should go in a ‘good paragraph’. I’ve been trying to encourage them to see an essay as a way of communicating with a reader – and a way of persuading that reader.

I’ve also noted that these undergrads have trouble differentiating between the big and little points of their developing argument – and will often conflate these, meaning that the paragraphs they write are sometimes ‘scatter gun’ – they will cram in all the things that they can think of to do with the topic in the question – rather than attempt to actually answer it.

I suspect that these students have not seen enough examples of academic writing, and have not spent enough time considering the style of different academic writers, let alone their own.

These are the issues I perceived from the other pieces of writing that they have done for me before this module, and from their directed task submissions.

One Line Answers

They had a choice of essay titles for this module – and in order to make them read these carefully (so that they’re not tempted to ‘do’ the one that they recognise some key words from) they were asked to look down the list and then spend 5 minutes drafting a one line answer to the question.  I explained that this was the kind of answer they might give if someone asked them a question like this on the bus, or in discussion with friends.

Model Answers

We then looked back at some model essays written in response to questions that were asked on the module the year before.  These were different from this year’s question.  I wanted them to be clear that they were reading good academic writing – not ‘good answers’ to the questions. They were asked to use highlighters to look for examples in the text of the following things:

  • Points – things that this person writes that moves on the argument in their answer to the question
  • Evidence – things that are used to support the argument that this person makes.
  • Evaluation – places where this person makes a critical point, or a judgement or weighing up of an approach or idea.

They were also asked to work out what the writer’s ‘one line answer’ to the question might have been.

A multi-faceted ‘One Line Answer’

When they’d done that, and following a discussion of some of their examples, and of the ‘one line answers’ from the model essays, I asked them to look again at their one line answers, and to re-write them, using the following words if they could:

  • However
  • But
  • Only
  • If

I wanted them to learn that their one line answer could contain a more nuanced line of argument, or perhaps an acknowledgement of another perspective or even some indication of how universal their ‘one line answer’ was.


I also decided to ask them to present their plans as part of one of their directed tasks, using a template which acts as a kind of ‘speaking frame’.   They presented these arguments in support of their ‘one line answer’ to their peers. Their peers were then encouraged to ask questions that will help them understand the argument that is being made.  I was hoping that this would act as a kind of dry run for writing the assignment itself, in that it would help them clarify their ideas.  wanted to see if their role as presenters of an argument would help them become writers of an argument.

How’s it going?

Not bad – the sessions in which we looked at ‘model’ essays were very interesting – there’s still some work to do in helping them see what the ‘big points’ are in models of academic writing.  I’m also having to think quite carefully about the kinds of things I want them to read – academic journals often are not full of ‘essays’, and ‘education’ undergraduate textbooks on these topics are often quite descriptive. I think that getting them reading more pieces of writing in which people have made and sustained arguments is the key way in which they will understand how this works.

During the presentations it was clear that whilst many had now made the leap from ‘survey’ or ‘everything I know about’, and were starting to think in terms of ‘what’s my argument’, some of these students were still hesitant in making definite and confident choices in selecting evidence or ‘little’ points to support these arguments.

Overall the level of writing has improved across the group.  Many more of these students are writing in shorter, much more focused paragraphs – even if they have not yet made the leap to argument.  Those that have made that leap are often writing sharply focused sections in support – though sometimes this is not sustained throughout.  Those that engaged more wholeheartedly in their presentations tend to be those who have gained the most in these improvements.  Next time we do this I’ll ask for permission, before we start the process, to share their work online – so that I can us it more precisely here.

Tweet tweet! That’s the sound of the police…

6364040129_125d4754ef_mI’ve been thinking about (and will probably have been writing this post) for quite a long time – collecting examples of a kind of twitter behaviour that has been interesting me for some time.

A key feature of many edu-twitter users’ online life is the seeking out of practice that they disagree with or find abhorrent, in order that they can publicise their worries and coral condemnation from their followers.  I’m writing this piece not as a form of condemnation, but as an opportunity for me to  explore why this phenomenon makes me so uncomfortable. It’s inspiration is this tweet by @mrhistoire, a brilliant and thoughtful teacher who I have followed for ages – and with whom I agreed when he tweeted:

This isn’t history – nominally it is about the past, but that doesn’t mean ‘history’.  I could imagine ways of improving this, but not without relating to wider histories of gaming or leisure. Even with much effort not to such an extent that I can imaging spending any of the precious and restricted curriculum time reserved for history in primary or secondary schools.

So, I agree – end of post?

Well, no.  I wanted to know where Toby had found this poor bullet point – so I asked him. It turns out that this was from a page that was tweeted around by @C_Hendrick – another tweeting teacher whose work I’ve long read and admired.

Carl’s tweet included more items from the list of activities that this teacher was recommending:

Carl’s comment made me uncomfortable, especially when considered in the light of a tweet that he sent earlier in the week:

I’m not getting here at Carl personally.  These are just two examples of the kinds of tweet that I’m concerned with – there are many others.  In fact they have a long (hey, everything is relative) history.  We could argue that there is a tradition which has seen followers of various tweeters present them with ‘gifts’ of tweets or webpages that they hope might be tweeted around as examples of practice, beliefs or resources that can be pronounced as ‘beyond the pale’.


There will be other examples.

Why do these things worry me so much?  Why do I find them unpleasant – so much so that I have un-followed many (not all) of those who do this?

A big part of this might be because I (like many other people) don’t enjoy having my ideas challenged.  I’m quite interested in the sociology of education, and therefore how theories such as Bourdieu’s might be used to understand aspects of it.  @JamesTheo’s post might therefore be one that I find distasteful because it challenges my own preconceptions and beliefs.  Even though I’m also someone who tries to seek out ideas that challenge my views – and enjoy reading and being convinced by others perhaps sometimes these tweets force me to face up to things that are at the core of my world view – this might explain some of the feelings they inspire.  However many of these tweets I agree with (Toby French on the value of creating a ‘history of pokemon’ for instance).  Nonetheless, it is highly likely that some of this discomfort comes from feelings of disorientation and challenge.

What partly worries me is the way that these tweets make twitter the sort of place where one comes for a duel, a spat, rather than a place to find out, explore or improve.  I’ll admit that I’m someone who doesn’t like conflict or aggression – emotionally as well as intellectually.  I just feel uncomfortable when I see others being attacked, even @philipdavies (though he seems to like it).  I can’t help wondering how they feel, what effect this is having on them.

Intellectually I fear that such tweets are counter productive – that they create feelings of aggression and being under-attack which make it hard for anyone to understand either (1) how others are to be persuaded to change or (2) why their ideas or practice might need to be re-examined.  Misapprehensions and conceptions which are attacked to aggressively tend to be un-examined and instead tenaciously defended or driven underground in silent protection.

I detect a righteousness in some of these types of tweet, and as I reflect on that I think I detect in myself another form of envy. I wish I knew what I thought about things with such confidence, such decision and righteousness – really, I do.  No doubt a some aspects of my personal history leave me wishing I was one of those people who could come up with a supported opinion about something without worrying that I might be wrong.  Perhaps I’m also envious of the groups of followers that tweets like this inspire. Do I wish my social media footprint were bigger? This might be true – though I’d probably force myself to write more controversial blog-posts if were an important ambition for me.  I always hate pressing the ‘publish’ button, and much of this is driven by anxiety about whether I’m making a fool of myself.  I certainly envy those who can do this with fluency, free of such worries.

However, what worries me much much more is the way that some of these tweets – even by the most thoughtful and inspiring teacher – have the effect of closing down the categories of what it is acceptable to post about.  We might cite Carl’s insistence that some practice be ‘eradicated’ when it is clear from a moments reflection that aspects of the work in the post above could well be viable and valuable in many classrooms.

Carl’s earlier tweet, that a Philosopher’s thought experiment about preventing parents reading to their children, was ‘beyond parody’ is a great example of this last concern.  The report was an excerpt from a longer interview about about ‘familial relationship goods’ – the things that parents can do to confer advantage on their children.   Andrew Swift considered that the benefit of reading to children at bedtime conferred a bigger advantage than sending them to ‘elite private schools’.  Their conclusions were that parental reading should _not_ be banned (the opposite of the headline) because that would interfere with the proper establishment of ‘loving, authoritative affectionate’ family relationships.  (Interestingly they decided that we _could_ prevent people sending children to private school without making a ‘hit’ on family relationships, and at the same time prevent un-fairnesses for other people’s children).

These are important questions to consider – and it is the job of philosophers to do this. Not all the examples above are those in which such important questions are at stake, but all are examples of the ways in which debate is shut down on twitter.  I bet I’ve done it myself on occasion – but I hope I think more carefully before doing so again.

[NB – there is a twitter vigilante! ]

Patriotism and Brexit – a few thoughts.

Patriotism is often the last refuge of the disenfranchised, or a lever of power which is used to wield influence over them.

People need institutions and ideas that they can invest belief in, and that they can trust to help them in the important and sometimes hard times in their lives. In the near past these roles have been fulfilled by many different groups, associations and ideas: family, church, the political party or the co-operative organisation, the local union, the workplace, night schools, football clubs, libraries, schools, leisure clubs or the doctor’s surgery have all played these roles. These are things that we can believe and trust in because we can touch them, we know the people who, alongside us, make them work. We make decisions with them, and through them. Through them we also help each other – not only in the obvious ways of distributing money and services, but through a million small ways in which we show care for each other.

Slowly we have removed the potency from many of the institutions that serve most people. Either we have turned our back on them, or refused to pay the taxes that fund them, or we have taken their responsibilities and powers into the disinterested central state. At the same time, and often as part of the same process, we have re-exposed many groups of people to the raw winds of economic change and risk in ways which mean they need these institutions more and more.

Amongst the wealthy we have, by and large, kept our institutions. Our good schools, private gyms, well stocked and supported libraries, our banks still serve us, we can get a game of tennis or a round of golf or a swim in the pool if we want. We raise money for the PTA, we buy insurance and own shares which limit our liabilities but bring us profits. We feel comfortable, we are not at risk, by and large.

However, we’re not just alright, we are rightly rewarded. We look at our wealth and the fact of its existence confirms that we are superior – because in this world value and wealth attain to the hardest working, and the most naturally gifted. The lack of comfort in those beneath us becomes a fact, a fundamental clause in the laws of the universe.  Those exposed without protection to these laws cannot afford, or cannot use, institutions that they can put their faith into and take comfort and support from.  They are even denied the right to place confidence in themselves because of the way that they are treated in the media.

When this happens it seems to me that people often invest in and turn to more dangerous abstract conceptions. They have to use accessible ideas that are free and open to all. Given such meagre resources these ideas have to generate a great deal of diffuse comfort. These ideas need to act as a mirror in which we can see our finest qualities, a lens through which we can only see the faults in others, and a way in which we can advertise and detect kinship with others in a world where there is a great deal of threat and uncertainty.

Patriotism and nationalism are two such ideas, and in the last week we have seen how they can be used not only to generate warmth but also to control and beguile.  We will wait and see what it means to ‘get our country back’, to take control back over our lives, but already it seems that this might not be pretty.  When it becomes clear that immigration will not fall as a result of the referendum result, we’ll see if these ideas can continue to be controlled by those who thought they could use them, and people, as a way of seeking further influence and positions of power.

However, the fundamental lesson of the referendum is that large numbers of people decided to vote when they have never voted before and may well never vote again and that they were often inspired by nationalism and patriotism.  If the media are to be believed many they did so thinking that the only way they had to protect their kids from competition from and to shore up their identity against that of ‘others’, was to tear down the UK’s membership of the EU.

Those of us in the 48% have ignored this large and important group of people for too long, and, in thinking that their condition was such that they deserved uncertainty, deserved poor housing and access to public services and institutions, that they cannot have a first chance, never mind a second or third one, or a regular wage or a steady job, we’ve abandoned them to Paul Nuttall and Boris Johnson.

Give me the closed factories, the zero hour contract, the shut library, the underfunded FE College and the jerry built school with 2000 plus kids in it, and I’ll give you Brexit.